“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” – Josef Stalin
A recent study suggests what many of us have always known to be true: the human race has difficulty dealing with large numbers of deaths.
Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, said his research found that mankind is less likely to intervene in cases of mass slaughter than in cases where only one victim was involved. […]
In the research carried out in Sweden, participants were shown a photo of a starving African girl and were given details of her individual story and the conditions of the nation in which she lives. Another photo contained the same information but for a starving boy. A third photo showed both children.
The feelings of sympathy for each individual child were almost equal but dropped when they were considered together.
Donations followed the same pattern, Slovic revealed, being lower for two needy children than for either individually.
“The studies just described suggest a disturbing psychological tendency,” Slovic said. “Our capacity to feel is limited.”
Accordingly, people were less likely to react when genocidal atrocities erupted. If humans saw a collapse of feeling at just two individuals, “it is no wonder that at 200,000 deaths the feeling is gone,” Slovic said.
Failure to react was an evolutionary hangover, he said.
It’s intersting, but not something that many of us didn’t already know. Eddie Izzard actually has an entire monologue about it in his comedy act:
Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. We can’t even deal with that! You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that’s murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that’s what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can’t deal with it, you know? Someone’s killed 100,000 people. We’re almost going, “Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning. I can’t even get down the gym! Your diary must look odd: “Get up in the morning, death, death, death, death, death, death, death – lunch- death, death, death – afternoon tea – death, death, death – quick shower…”
Of course, this is the main point of the book The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom, which proffers that this tendency is the result of our genetic makeup, a throwback to simian clan warfare – rooted in sexuality and social politics – since apes and chimps manifest the same behavior and also exhibit a strong lack of emotional reaction or connection to large numbers of simian deaths.
As humans, we like to think that our reason and rationality separate us from and elevate us above the monkeys and apes, but in truth, not so much.
Perhaps this is one reason Fundamentalists cling so very powerfully to religious mythology. Blaming an evil power such as Lucifer for our inhumanity towards our own humanity and ignoring the science behind evolution allows the blame for such atrocities to be hoisted upon an evil unseen power, rather than actually accepting our responsibility for our actions.
It’s something we continue to struggle with in the 21st century. It’s a shame since the science is pretty obvious, as is the basic assumption.
It’s a monkey thing, and as such, something we need to deal with in order to move into an area of truly civilized behavior.