The Human Response to Mass Suffering

Courtesy of Stop Genocide Now

Photograph by Stop Genocide Now

The Washington Post recently published a great article that provides insight as to why human beings look the other way when it comes to incidents of mass suffering (such as Darfur).

Logically, a person should care twice as much about atrocities which take 100 lives than atrocities which take 50.

However, in reality, the events which grab our hearts the most are often those which claim the lives of few rather than the lives of many.

According to Paul Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon –

The first loss of life is very precious, but we don’t react very much to the difference between 88 deaths and 87 deaths. You don’t feel worse about 88 than you do about 87.

Experiments conducted by Slovic showed that people preferred saving 4,500 lives at a refugee camp of 11,000 people over the same number of lives at a refugee camp of 100,000. Additionally, people preferred saving 10,000 lives from a disease which killed 20,000 each year over saving 20,000 lives from a disease which killed 290,000.

People were responding not to the number of lives saved but the percentage of lives saved. The mathematical side of our brain could tell us the absolute number of victims saved is more important than the percentage of survivors, but our analytical side isn’t usually in charge.

Slovic believes that a person will be drawn to crises in which they can save all or most of the victims but will turn away from crises in which they can save only a fraction of the victims.

Slovic’s research may answer the question of why people have not responded stronger to tragedies like Darfur. However, another question, perhaps even more important, now emerges – what can we do to combat the human instinct to turn away?

About Kristen
"peace happens when the love for power is overcome by the power of love"

One Response to The Human Response to Mass Suffering

  1. Anshul says:

    I’m not sure if it’s “human instinct” that drives people against issues like Darfur. It’s more of a defense against horror… and denial can be a powerful thing.

    It is sad that so many people choose to turn away.

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