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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.

At first, it was just the students, looking for paper clips everywhere they could find. Then they expanded the search. They set up a website, they wrote to people and they spread the word. Gradually, paper clips from started trickling in from around the world. From Holocaust survivors to celebrities such as Bill Clinton and Tom Hanks, everyone started sending in paper clips. Some came with little notes. With dedications, names and stories of family members who had lost their lives to the atrocity. One letter read, “Today, I am sending 71 paper clips to commemorate the 71 Jews who were deported from Bueckeburg.” [3]

Over the next few years, more than 30 million paper clips were collected. The school then converted this into an exhibition. They acquired a German “cattle car” which had been used to transport the Jews to concentration camps. They filled the train with 11 million clips to represent 6 million Jewish people and 5 million others who died in the Holocaust.

It still exists today as the Children’s Holocaust Memorial.

The Children's Holocaust Memorial, Whitwell

Image courtesy: [3]

The Memorial based in a German Cattle Car

Image courtesy: [4]

Why COVID-19 is a reminder about the value of life

The somber story above is important because we are once again on the verge of losing sight of the value of life. We, like that young student whose comment kicked off the Paperclip Project, are now grappling with the weight of millions of deaths.

When COVID-19 first emerged, the number of deaths caused by the virus impacted us immensely. Across the world, we all refreshed our news feeds obsessively to keep track. We were all scared when the number hit a 1,000 deaths. After 10,000 deaths, we got more scared. But as we marched towards 100,000 deaths, we somehow cared less than before. Now, with more than two million deaths caused by COVID-19 globally, we are going about our daily lives like nothing happened.

This becomes even scarier if we take young people into account. Imagine growing up thinking that losing two million people in less than a year is just normal news. The only thing they will remember is the minor inconvenience of zoom classes and not getting to run around free.

Why do large numbers of deaths make us numb? Why do we care less when many people die, compared to when we lose just one person?

The value of life, explained

I had first read about Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll’s work on this topic when I was doing my Master’s dissertation on a similar subject. I remember reading about examples of mass death, from Holocaust to the Syrian War. It never occurred to me, even in my wildest thoughts, that at some point in my lifetime, we would live through something comparable.

Slovic and Västfjäll’s groundbreaking work teaches us a lot about how we value life. [5] To put it simply, in an ideal world, every life is equal and holds the same value. So if, say, you were to donate to save lives, if the number of victims is N and X is the amount it takes to save one person, then the total response collected, R should be quantifiable as R = X x N, i.e. linear graph.

A second form of normative value of life is when the number of lives crosses a threshold, beyond which the sustainability of the group is threatened, and a result, every additional life saved has much more value than the normal lives saved. For example, when an animal is on the verge of extinction, every animal of that species becomes more valuable.

Both of these ideal forms of valuing life can be depicted as below:

But this is in an ideal world. What actually happens is very different. Experimental evidence from charitable donations shows that we deviate from these norms in two ways.

The first is the psychological model, where our compassion goes up as the number of victims goes up, but then hits a plateau and we stop feeling worse after a point. Imagine if I told you 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust and then correct myself to say, actually, it was 6 million and 653 people who died. Those 653 additional deaths do not make you feel worse.

The second model is even scarier. This model, called the collapse of compassion, tells a different story. This says that our compassion towards victims drops even as we move from 1 victim to 2 victims and it just keeps dropping drastically from there.

These 2 models are represented below [6]:

A number of experiments have been conducted to test different hypotheses around these. And we always emerge with similar results. Slovic and Västfjäll show that increasing the number of victims in a donation appeal from 1 to 2 to 8 victims drastically decreases donations. [7] Small, Loewenstein, & Slovic showed that a single identifiable victim gets more donations than a larger statitic. [8] Kogut & Ritov also showed that a single identifiable victim gets more donations than a group of identifiable victims. [9]

So far, it's not clear which of these models is correct. But no matter what angle we take, unfortunately, we hit the same problem—that we are not capable of feeling compassionate for large numbers of people.

Why does this happen and what can we do

There are several explanations to this. Maybe people doubt the efficacy of their actions when the number of victims is large: If 100,000 children are in need of help, what good will my $10 donation do? Or perhaps people regulate their feelings to not feel compassionate when they know a donation has to be made , because at the end of the day, no one wants to part with their money. Or maybe we feel psychologically distant from such large numbers in general; they are abstractions to us, rather than concrete concepts.

Charity is one thing—but now, it’s about how we live our day-to-day lives. At this point in the pandemic, these large numbers are be thrown around in conversation like any other news item, and we would be react to them in an equanimous manner, as if it does not affect us.

All is not lost though. The children of the Whitwell Middle School taught us an important lesson. The ability to visualize large numbers is what is missing and if we can find innovative ways to do that, we might still be able to salvage some of this compassion. And we have seen this happen.

In May 2020, The New York Times dedicated the front page of the newspaper to names of 100,000 people who had died in the pandemic. Each name was followed by a line from the obituary. It was meant as a reminder to people that behind the statistics are lives of real people, with families. They were a part of someone’s memories and they deserved to be remembered for that and not for being a statistic.[10]

Image courtesy: New York Times

Another stark representation of this was done in October 2020, when 20,000 empty chairs were laid out at the grounds facing the White House, each chair representing 10 deaths. This was then followed with similar installations in various states across the U.S. [11]

Image courtesy: PBS

Final takeaways

In order to counter these effects, there are things we can do. Visualization is one of them. The other is to tell people about the importance of small efforts. Technology, especially, helps us do this through features such as real-time updates about donations. Many crowdfunding websites allow donors to track projects long after they have contributed to them, in order to see the impact of their actions. This could be one way to tell people that every bit matters.

Whether this helps change how we value life might still be a question for researchers, but in the current context, it might just help us understand and assimilate large numbers. This in itself is a move in the right direction. The least we can do at this point is ensure our children don’t grow up thinking that it’s normal to lose millions of lives to a virus within a single year. We owe them that much.






  5. Slovic, P. (2010). If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic NumbingPsychic Numbing and GenocideGenocide, 2(2), 37–59.

  6. Slovic, P., & Västfjäll, D. (2018). The More Who Die, the Less We Care Psychic Numbing and Genocide31, 94–114.

  7. Västfjäll, D., Slovic, P., Mayorga, M., & Peters, E. (2014). Compassion fade: Affect and charity are greatest for a single child in need. PloS one, 9(6), e100115.

  8. Small, D. A., Loewenstein, G., & Slovic, P. (2013). Sympathy and callousness:The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. The Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception, 102, 51–68.

  9. Kogut, T., & Ritov, I. (2005). The “ Identifiable Victim ” effect : an identified group , or just a single individual ? J Behav Decis Mak, 18(August), 157–167.




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