Skip to main content
Log in

Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing

  • Published:
Journal of Risk and Uncertainty Aims and scope Submit manuscript


A fundamental principle of psychophysics is that people's ability to discriminate change in a physical stimulus diminishes as the magnitude of the stimulus increases. We find that people also exhibit diminished sensitivity in valuing lifesaving interventions against a background of increasing numbers of lives at risk. We call this psychophysical numbing. Studies 1 and 2 found that an intervention saving a fixed number of lives was judged significantly more beneficial when fewer lives were at risk overall. Study 3 found that respondents wanted the minimum number of lives a medical treatment would have to save to merit a fixed amount of funding to be much greater for a disease with a larger number of potential victims than for a disease with a smaller number. The need to better understand the dynamics of psychophysical numbing and to determine its effects on decision making is discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  • “38,000 Shoes Stand For Loss In Lethal Year,” (1994) The Register-Guard, September 21, 6A.

  • Cooper, A. (1994). All Things Considered. Washington, DC: National Public Radio, July 25.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fechner, G. T. (1860). Elemente der Psychophysik. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel.

    Google Scholar 

  • Galanter, E. (1962). “The Direct Measurement Of Utility And Subjective Probability,” American Journal of Psychology 75, 208–220.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hersey, J. (1946). Hiroshima. New York: Bantam.

    Google Scholar 

  • Humphrey, N. (1981). “Four Minutes To Midnight.” Quoted in R. J. Lifton and N. Humphrey (eds.), In A Dark Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 21–22.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kahneman, D., and A. Tversky. (1979). “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk,” Econometrica 47, 263–291.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lifton, R. J. (1967). Death In Life: Survivors Of Hiroshima. New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  • Purvis, A. (1994). “All the Hatred in the World,” Time, June 13, 36–37.

  • Rummel, R. J. (1995). “The Holocaust in Comparative and Historical Perspective.” Paper delivered at the conference on “The ‘Other’ as Threat—Demonization and Antisemitism.” Hebrew University of Jerusalem, June.

  • Schell, J. (1982). The fate of the earth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stevens, S. S. (1975). Psychophysics. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Summers, C., P. Slovic, D. Hine, and D. Zuliani. (in press). “’Psychophysical Numbing’: An Empirical Basis for Perceptions of Collective Violence.” In C. Summers and E. Markusen (eds.), Collective Violence: Harmful Behavior in Groups and Governments.

  • Tversky, A., and D. Kahneman. (1981). “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice,” Science 211, 453–458.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weber, E. H. (1834). “De Pulsu, Resorptione, Auditu et Tactu.” In Annotationes Anatomical et Physiological. Leipzig: Koehler.

    Google Scholar 

  • World News Tonight. (1994a). “Many Rwandan Refugees Are Dying of Cholera.” New York and Washington, DC: American Broadcasting Corporation, July 22.

  • World News Tonight. (1994b). “U.S. Army Begins Water Purification in Rwanda.” New York and Washington, DC: American Broadcasting Corporation, July 26.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

FETHERSTONHAUGH, D., SLOVIC, P., JOHNSON, S. et al. Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 14, 283–300 (1997).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: