Combating Psychic Numbing to Prevent Genocide

In the paper “Psychic Numbing and Mass Atrocity” [click where it says One-Click Download], University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic and his four co-authors examine the phenomenon of “psychic numbing” and its implications for genocide prevention policies.

Psychic numbing proceeds from the role of affects—positive and negative reactions to stimuli that influence our decision-making—in the dual-process theories of thinking. The dual process is composed of System 1 and System 2, the former emphasizing emotions, experiences, and intuitions and the latter based on analytical deliberations. Both are important components of our ability to think that arose out of the long process of evolution, but each has distinct effects on our decision-making. Affects are central to the System 1 mode of thinking, which “evolved to protect individuals and their small family and community groups from present, visible, immediate dangers.” However, this also means that “this affective system did not evolve to help us respond to distant, mass murder. As a result, System 1 thinking responds to large-scale atrocities in ways that System 2 deliberation, if activated, finds reprehensible.”

Studies have shown that “constant increases in the physical magnitude of a stimulus typically evoke smaller and smaller changes in response.” Applied to human lives, this means that “the importance of saving one life is great when it is the first, or only, life saved but diminishes marginally as the total number of lives saved increases.” Related to this revelation is the research showing that one specific victim with a name and a face compels a much stronger response from the public than simply a number of victims or a group of victims. As Slovic et al. state: “Our capacity to feel is limited . . . the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N (number of victims) = 1 but begins to decline at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply ‘a statistic.’ ” This means that “faced with genocide and other mass tragedies, we cannot rely on our moral intuitions alone to guide us to act properly”—instead we need to depend on our ability to think analytically to guide our actions.

According to the authors, based on their research, if the international community were to pursue policies and institutional and legal arrangements to prevent and react to genocides, mechanisms to “overcome cognitive failures” would need to be implemented. As institutional arrangements and legal system are decision-making instruments based on analytical deliberations, the authors believe that any effort to mitigate the effects of psychic numbing should focus on: 1) “insulating institutions from the effects of psychic numbing”; 2) “removing or restricting institutional features that foster psychic numbing”; 3) “promoting System 2 deliberation directly”; and 4) employing System 1 to channel actors toward System 2 processes.”

In order to shield institutions from psychic numbing, the authors advocate changes to the current system of enforcement and reaction to mass atrocities, such as employing pre-authorization and pre-commitment for military intervention or economic sanctions. Rather than scrambling to react to a situation, their focus is on having rules in place that would allow countries and institutions to simply follow a procedure in place and bypass the inaction arising from psychic numbing as the casualties mount. They also support greater early warning and preventive diplomacy efforts, as well as giving more authority to regional institutions, which because of their physical proximity are less susceptible to psychic numbing than larger international organizations.

The authors call for changes to human rights reporting to emphasize personal stories and use more images, and to human rights indicators to place less weight on quantitative factors. They also believe that human rights law, such as the definition of crimes against humanity, should emphasize crimes against individuals rather than against groups. Lastly, in order to put greater emphasis on System 2-type thinking, the authors urge international institutions and national governments to deliberate more, and more open-mindedly, about possible courses of action, such as conducting cost-benefit analyses of intervention versus non-interventions in cases of genocide.

Image: Paul Slovic

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