Why We Grow Numb To Staggering Statistics — And What We Can Do About It | KGOU
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Why We Grow Numb To Staggering Statistics — And What We Can Do About It

Jul 28, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 12:05 am

COVID-19 has now killed more than 148,000 people in the U.S. On a typical day in the past week, more than 1,000 people died.

But the deluge of grim statistics can dull our collective sense of outrage. And part of that has to do with how humans are built to perceive the world.

"With any kind of consistent danger, people get used to situations like that," says Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and of energy and the environment at Princeton University. "When you live in a war zone, after a while, everyday risk becomes just baseline. Our neurons are wired in such a way that we only respond to change. And any state that's constant basically sort of gets washed out."

She says that's what's happening now with the coronavirus pandemic.

"People have just gotten used to being in this new state of danger, adapting to it, and therefore have not taken enough precaution anymore," she says in an interview on All Things Considered.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

During a war, it's clear who the enemy is, who the humans are that we are fighting against. But during a pandemic, is the sense of the enemy vaguer, and therefore the toll that that enemy is taking on a society isn't as clear cut?

Absolutely. I think that what you said is so true in so many different ways. One of them is that with COVID we're dealing with a small virus. This tiny enemy is also something that we as individuals can't really fight until we have a vaccine and we have to fight it with science. And so our usual protection mechanisms don't kick in.

And then on top of that, also, if you think about who is the enemy in terms of actions that bring about death, in many ways — and this is in that sense very similar to climate change — the enemy is us. So absolutely, I think it's very different from other situations where we might want to kick into protective action, because we're not quite sure what we want to protect ourselves against.

So how do we make these just astronomical statistics resonate more with people?

One thing is just that people are not very good with large numbers. We don't discriminate between 150,000 or 300,000 or 3 million.

And so to put it into a context where people again can imagine what it means — like to have the probability of dying of COVID — can be very helpful. One in 2,000 Americans has died already. Now, most of us know 2,000 people, or we live in towns that are multiples of 2,000. We can imagine how many people would have died in our town, in our acquaintances. That's one very good way of doing it.

The other one would be to say, well, what towns and cities in the U.S. has COVID wiped out at this point? And if you live in New Jersey, Paterson, N.J., is gone. It has a population of 145,000.

If you want to put into New York context, Syracuse, N.Y., is gone, wiped out, a whole town, city wiped out by the virus. Pasadena, Calif., is gone. Dayton, Ohio; Waco, Texas. So depending on where you are, making it local and making it concrete, I think can really help.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

COVID-19 has now killed more than 149,000 people in this country. And in the past week, an average of a thousand people have died every day. And yet the psychologist Elke Weber says these ever-growing statistics can dull our collective sense of outrage. So I asked her, why doesn't the daily U.S. death toll from COVID-19, which is now equivalent to three large passenger jets crashing every single day - why doesn't that COVID death toll provoke the same emotional response a plane crash would?

ELKE WEBER: I think with any kind of consistent danger, people get used to situations like that. You know, when you live in a war zone, after a while, sort of your everyday risk becomes just baseline. Our neurons are wired in such a way that we only respond to change. And, you know, any state that's constant, you know, basically sort of gets washed out. And I think what's happening right now with the COVID pandemic is people have just gotten used to being in this new state of danger, adapting to it and therefore not taking enough precaution anymore.

CHANG: But when I'm thinking about, say, a war zone - the example that you brought up - during a war, it's clearer who the enemy is, who the humans are that we are fighting against. But during a pandemic, is the sense of the enemy vaguer and therefore the toll that that enemy is taking on a society isn't as clear-cut?

WEBER: Absolutely. I think that what you said is so true in so many different ways.

CHANG: Yes.

WEBER: One of them is, you know, that with COVID, we're dealing with a small virus. This tiny enemy is also something that we as individuals can't really fight until we have a vaccine. And so we have to fight it with science. And so our usual protection mechanisms don't kick in. And then on top of that, also if you think about who is the enemy in terms of actions, you know, that bring about death, in many ways, this is, in that sense, very similar to climate change. The enemy is us. So, absolutely, I think it's very different from other situations where we might want to kick into protective action because it's not quite - we're not quite sure what we want to protect ourselves against.

CHANG: So then how do we make these just astronomical statistics - more than 140,000 deaths already - how do we make them resonate more with people?

WEBER: Well, one thing is just that we don't discriminate between 150,000 or 300,000 or 3 million. And so to put it into a context where people, again, can imagine what it means, like, 1 in 2,000 Americans has died already. Most of us know 2,000 people.

CHANG: Yeah.

WEBER: Or we live in towns that are multiples of 2,000. We can imagine how many people would have died in our town in our sort of acquaintances. That's one very good way of doing it. The other one would be to say, well, what towns and cities in the U.S. has COVID wiped out at this point? And if you live in New Jersey, that would be the - Patterson, N.J., is gone. It's a population of 145,000. Syracuse, N.Y., if you want to put it into New York context - Syracuse, N.Y., is gone, wiped out. The whole town, city wiped out by the virus. For you, Pasadena, Calif., is gone.

CHANG: Wow.

WEBER: Dayton, Ohio, Waco, Texas - yeah, so depending on where you are, making it local and making it concrete, I think, can really help.

CHANG: You have drawn parallels, I understand, between how people are responding to the current pandemic and also how they've been responding to climate change. Tell us, what are the similarities you see in those two responses?

WEBER: So if you think about both COVID and climate change and the fact that our current behavior has lasting consequences, in both cases, we don't experience the consequences of our current actions right now. There's a significant delay. One thing that's nice is that in the case of COVID, actually, the delays are a week or two. That's still manageable. In the case of climate change, it's a matter of years or decades. And so there's a chance that we might actually sort of learn some lessons from COVID that it makes sense, on the one hand, to pay attention to science, yeah. The science is telling us sort of that early action matters. Our personal experience doesn't do so, but science does - learning from science but then also seeing that sort of government intervention is not necessarily a bad thing when we talk about paternalism. Paternalism is not necessarily a dirty word. You know, governments are there to protect us from exactly circumstances like that. And, you know, one potential hope is that there might be a positive takeaway in what we learn from COVID that can be applied to greater willingness to do something about climate change.

CHANG: Elke Weber is a professor of psychology and a professor of energy and the environment at Princeton University.

Thanks very much.

WEBER: You're very welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.