Millions of animals are killed every day, but there’s a reason nobody cares
Perhaps you’ve seen this meme before or variations of it while scrolling through your social media feeds. Impossibly huge number of human lives lost juxtaposed near impossibly huge number of animal lives lost. We often reason that these monolithic numbers will move our friends to action.
But chances are high that your friends don’t even read those memes before they scrolled on by.
Does this mean that you’re surrounded by soulless monsters? Well, probably not.
As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy shuts off the lights and closes the blinds. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two. This paradox is known as psychic numbing.
What’s psychic numbing?
Psychic numbing is a psychological phenomenon that renders us indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of individuals. The phrase was popularized by Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. Slovic’s work asks the question: Why does the world often ignore mass atrocities? And the answer is simple. The human mind is not well equipped to think about millions or billions of individuals. And this is true whether we are talking about any marginalized community, be they mice or men.
Take, for example, that meme. Are you mentally capable of considering what 153 million animals looks like? Really really? When we see one life, we can imagine their hopes and pain. But 153 million is a complete abstraction. Human compassion has a hard limit, and that hard limit profoundly shapes human events.
But every coin has two sides. And if more victims only results in further apathy, then the opposite of psychic numbing is…
The Singularity Effect
The singularity effect occurs when an individual life is valued very
highly. Our immediate response to a single individual in distress is to protect them. But that response is not proportional as the number of individuals increases.
This explains why we root for a cow who escaped the slaughterhouse, but our collective care leaps straight out the window when we order a steak during our next lunch.
So then what does this mean for animal advocates?
According to Slovic, individual stories and individual photographs can be effective. They help us glimpse harsh realities at a scale we can connect to emotionally. But then there has to be somewhere to go with it.
In an interview with journalist Brian Resnick, Slovic explained this by way of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study focused on Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose drowned body was photographed lying on a beach.
Since 2011, the death toll in Syria marched steadily into the six figure region and public reaction was fairly unmoved. However, researchers analyzed the reaction to that photograph and people were properly shook. Kurdi caused people to care about the Syrian war in ways that statistics on hundreds of thousands of deaths had failed to do. But it’s important to…
Mobilize people while their empathy is engaged because the window of care is unforgivably small.
Slovic said, “It's not enough to break through the numbing. You have to give people somewhere to go. You have to then have some action options that they can take.”
In the example of the Syrian war and resulting refugees, there were several actions that people could take. Slovic told Resnick,
“In Sweden, where they had taken in 160,000 Syrian refugees, the Swedish Red Cross had created a fund to get money to help take care of this mass influx. The day after that photograph appeared, donations went from $8,000 to $430,000 — because of the photograph. Then we could see over time how ... it stayed elevated for about a month or so, and then it went back [down].
These dramatic stories of individuals or photographs give us a window of opportunity where we're suddenly awake and not numbed, and we want to do something. If there's something we can do, like donate to the Red Cross, people will do it. But then if there's nothing else they can do, then over time that gets turned off again.”
So take this into consideration the next time you post a meme showing statistics of animal violence that might be challenging for people to grasp. Those memes aren’t necessarily ineffective. But there might be more creative ways to use social media to make the same point.
After all, if people in our social circles aren’t even able to conceive of the value of millions of human lives, are they really prepared to conceive of farmed animals and others as individuals?
Even Joseph Stalin recognized that “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” And he’s the guy most remembered for competing with Hitler for western civilization’s greatest villain!
For more on psychic numbing and genocide, you can read Slovic’s work here. And for more on digital media literacy for animal rights, consider emailing me to schedule a full lecture in your city.
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