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As COVID numbers rise, so does 'psychic numbing'

Every day we see sobering headlines about new COVID-19 cases and record number of deaths – it can be incredibly overwhelming. It would stand to reason that more people would be vigilant and wear masks, practice social distancing and follow stringent protocols, right? Not exactly.

In a recent article published on WebMD, it’s more complicated than people just selfishly ignoring warnings and preventative measures. According to Paul Slovic, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, the seeming indifference that sets in when we're faced with such a crisis is known by mental health experts as psychic numbing.

Psychic numbing ''is a lack of feeling associated with information," he says. "The meaning of information is heavily determined by the feeling that information creates in us."

"If some information conveys a positive feeling, that’s a signal to approach whatever the situation is. If it sends a negative feeling, it’s a signal to retreat. We need these feelings to truly understand the meaning of the information."

How we react to a crisis like the pandemic depends on the mode of thinking we are using, Slovic says. He cites the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on decision-making and author of the bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow.

Slow thinking uses mathematical models, Slovic says; it's how we were taught to think in school. "We can think that way but rarely do it because it's hard work," he says. "The human brain is lazy; if it can [process information] through feeling, that's our default mode of thinking."

The only way to understand the impact of the COVID toll, Slovic says, is to think slowly and carefully so we understand what science is telling us. Without doing so, as the numbers get bigger and bigger, he says, ''you don't feel anything at all; it's just a number."

Concern doesn’t keep up with the numbers

In their research, Slovic and others also have found that someone’s concern about others in danger doesn't increase with the number of people affected. "One person in danger can signal a lot of strong feelings," he says. "People will risk their lives to save someone in danger." That's especially true if the person is a loved one, he says.

In one study, Slovic and his team presented three scenarios to college students: a 7-year-old girl who was desperately poor and needed help, a 9-year-old boy who was desperately poor and needed help, or both needing help. Students gave higher donations when one person needed help, he found.

He concluded that the decline in compassion may begin with the second endangered life.

Regarding the COVID death and case totals, he says, ''you don't have a sense of the individual lives. That's psychic numbing. You lose feeling, you lose emotions. These are [just] dry statistics."

Reducing COVID's Psychic Numbing

Psychic numbing can affect behavior, including resistance to mask-wearing and other preventive measures, Slovic says. Public health experts need statistics to fight COVID, he says, but he suggests they also try to trigger a feeling when they present numbers if they want to reduce psychic numbing.

Talking about individual cases is another good way to decrease psychic numbing, Slovic says. And as statistics are presented, health care providers should talk about crowded intensive care units and emergency rooms, he says. Stories of people who contracted COVID after denying the risk are also powerful, he says.

Read more by visiting the WebMD website.

Source: WebMD, Plos One

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