Why we don't feel bad when a million people die

Republished from The Decision Lab. The Decision Lab is a behavioural science consultancy dedicated to creating social good by helping individuals, organisations, and governments make better decisions. I am a Staff Columnist for The Decision Lab. Subscribe here for the applied behavioural insights newsletter.

Original article published here.

“There were not six million Jews murdered: there was one murder, six million times.” - Abel Hertzberg, Holocaust survivor [1]

The year was 1998. The tiny town of Whitwell, Tennessee, with less than 2,000 residents, was about to become known for something no one had ever expected.

It all started when Linda Hooper, the Principal of the Whitwell Middle School yearned to teach the students of this largely white and Christian town the merits of having a broader world view. She asked the Language Arts teacher, Sandra Roberts, and the Associate Principal, David Smith, to begin an after-school program on Holocaust education. [2] Teaching about the Holocaust to this audience could not have been an easy task, by any measure.

As they went about telling the students the horrors of the event through readings of books such as Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1956), inevitably, the horrendous large numbers around the deaths came to light.

When told about 6 million deaths, a young student remarked out of curiosity, “What is 6 million? I have never seen 6 million.”

"Well, that’s a valid concern," thought the teachers. How do we help students visualize that number? So, they came up with the idea of collecting 6 million objects of something that was representative of the deaths. On research, the students learnt that Norwegians wore paper clips on their clothing during World War II as a silent protest against Nazi atrocities.

And so began the famous Paperclip Project: a quest to collect 6 million paper clips.