If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide
Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are “one of many” in a much greater problem. Why does this occur? Answering this question will help us address the topic of this paper: Why, over the past century, have good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide? I shall draw from psychological research to show how the statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The reported numbers of deaths fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action. Recognizing that we cannot rely only upon our moral feelings to motivate proper action against genocide, we must look to moral argument and international law. The 1948 Genocide Convention was supposed to meet this need, but it has not been effective. It is time to examine this failure in light of the psychological deficiencies described here and design legal and institutional mechanisms that will enforce proper response to mass murder. Implications pertaining to technological risk will also be discussed.
KeywordsMoral Intuition Compassion Fatigue News Coverage Mass Murder Statistical Victim
Portions of this chapter appeared earlier in the paper “If I Look at the Mass I Shall Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide ,” that was published in Judgment and Decision Making, 2007, 2, 79–95. I wish to thank the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and its President, Paul Brest, for support and encouragement in the research that has gone into this chapter. Additional support has been provided by the National Science Foundation through Grant SES-0649509.
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