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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Psychic Numbing -- Indifference

Psychic Numbing

Teachers discuss a tragic current events topic in class while many students either space out or, as if it's old news, they ignore it. Maybe it's something they feel completely helpless to do anything about. People want serious social problems to stop, but herein lies the problem - so many are simply waiting and hoping for a solution, despite the information they have, rather than taking some sort of active stand. (Meredith LaFrance, "The Cost of Human Indifference," Oregon Daily Emerald, March 2 2009) These people are essentially NUMB.

Psychic numbing is a relatively new term, assigned to the phenomenon which shows people tend to feel less urgent compassion, and tend to give less, when the suffering in question is shown to be more systemic and more pervasive, or affecting larger numbers of people. Some psychologists believe it is linked to humans' intuitive sense that if one suffers alone, the suffering is worse, but if one is accompanied, there might be some security in numbers, not just emotionally, but practically. (J.E. Robertson,, February 27 2010) What numbs the onlooker out is a sense of powerlessness, helplessness, that nothing in the world will change that particularly broad, complex situation. Of course, nothing will change if everyone is numb.
Psychic numbing may account for the reason people can read numbers like "450,000 dead in Darfur" and "tens of thousands of women and children raped in eastern Congo," and then minutes later walk away and wonder what they want to have for dinner. The effect keeps them us from having any emotional or visceral reaction. Slovic considers this psychic numbing to be a "fundamental deficiency in our humanity." And, writes Boston Globe writer Thea Singer in her article "Why We Don't Care About Darfur, "It's partially why, in the face of repeated genocide, good people have historically failed to act." (Thea Singer, O, The Oprah Magazine, September 19 2008)

"We all know intuitively that humans are more likely to intervene to help a little girl in tears on the street than to help some distant population that is suffering," says Nicholas D. Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist known for his pieces on humanitarian issues, "but Paul Slovic PhD. and other psychologists have given us ways to measure these disparate responses and have underscored how difficult it is to generate interest in genocide." ("The More Who Die, The Less We Care: Confronting Psychic Numbing," Science Committee Newsletter,, 2009)

As Mother Theresa said, "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."  

The personal distance hurts even more as people are constantly bombarded with statistics, but what do they mean? Four hundred and fifty thousand dead - how are they to wrap their minds around this number?

How To Combat Psychic Numbing

Slovic contends decisions in the face of risk rely upon two forms of thinking:

1. Risk as feelings refers to our instinctive and intuitive reactions to danger.

2. Risk as analysis brings logic, reason, quantification and deliberation to bear on hazard management.

Compared to analysis, reliance on feelings tends to be a quicker, easier, and more efficient way to navigate in a complex, uncertain, and dangerous world. Hence, it is essential to rational behavior. Yet, it sometimes misleads people. In such circumstances they need to ensure that reason and analysis also are employed.

Asked what a compassionate person can do to keep her eyes from glazing over when confronted with situations such as Darfur, Slovic suggests that they make a conscious effort to pause and really consider what lies behind the numbers, rather than to rely on intuitive responses. "We do have the capablity to override our feelings," he says, "to step back and say, 'Wait a minute, I don't feel upset about Darfur, but let me think about that for a minute. This is 6,000 times the magnitude of Virginia Tech." 

Famous short story writer, novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick directly involves people in a story of Christian heroism in Fame and Folly (1997). She asks readers to really imagine how it was during the Holocaust and to explore the ordinary human reaction during that time. By identifying with and pointing out the indifference of the majority, her audience soon learns how rare and magnificent heroism was then and still is now. Ozick recognizes that it may be human nature to be a bystander; however, she urges us to try heroism instead to learn how we can make a difference for mankind.

At the start of her essay, Ozick includes a quote by Herbert Gold to set the tone to show that we live in times where indifference becomes an everyday reaction:

"There is a story about Clare Booth Luce complaining that she was bored with hearing about the Holocaust. A Jewish friend of hers said he perfectly understood her sensitivity in the matter; in fact, he had the same sense of repetitiousness and fatigue, hearing so often about the Crucifixion."

Ozick continues, "Indifference is not so much a gesture of looking away - of choosing to be passive - as it is an active disinclination to feel. Indifference shuts down the human, and it does it deliberately, with all the strength deliberateness demands. Indifference is as determined - as forcibly muscular - as any blow. For the victims on their way to the chimneys, there is scarcely anything to choose between a thug with an uplifted truncheon and the decent citizen who will not lift up his eyes." (Cynthia Ozick, Fame and Folly, 1997)

Although true bystanders did not actively and directly try to cause harm to the victims of the Holocaust, Ozick is concerned with the conscious indifference towards their plight. The bystanders chose not an act of assistance, but instead the shameless act of indifference and lack of compassion for those suffering around them. I can not - and do not want to - imagine desperately calling out and pleading for help only to have someone turn their back to me or pretend that they can't hear me or just don't want to help me - what a terrible feeling! ("Human Action: Indifference or Making a Difference," from Cynthia Ozick's "Of Christian Heroism")

And imagine being the indifferent bystander - what a terrible feeling to turn away from ignoring pleas of help and having to live with the memory of knowing you did nothing. Ozick is showing us how we are accountable for each of our actions towards each other and ourselves. Through doing so, she is asking us to not be indifferent about the events of the Holocaust, but rather to commit ourselves to compassion and understanding each other.

Perhaps a Sales Approach Is Needed 

Businessman Joe Heller ("The Greatest Competitor: Indifference,", August 6 2004) reminds salesmen that it takes up to five times more effort/energy/cost to win a new customer verses maintaining a profitable relationship with an existing customer. Heller teaches his sales recruits that indifference is such a challenging competitor because, psychologically, indifference is rooted in the human belief system. It's endemic, an attitude, a viewpoint held by customers, that they must change in order to close their sales. In addition, while they are more than able to compete head on against the visible products of their toughest competitor, the balance of power shifts when they are force to compete against the invisible competitor of the human mind.
Heller says indifference to a salesman is not based in logic, but lies embedded in the client’s perception. Many factors can contribute to client indifference, including familiarity with an existing product, or “may be” false satisfaction with a competitor's product, or the failure of the buyer to notice additional needs, or their failure to recognize the unique benefits value of your product/service. However, the most prevalent factor by far is simply complacently, the age-old adage, “but that’s what we’ve always bought.” Indifference comes from the clients' opinion that what the salesmen are selling is a commodity-like product with relatively no distinction nor value over their existing product/service.           
Also, Heller contends, "Approaching indifference, the sales professional must understand the psychological considerations that are tied to changing an attitude. Your client needs to be motivated to change." So, raising the customers' awareness about their current level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, helps identify the consequences of leaving things unchanged, promoting the cost of a the need to facilitate change. There must be a more personal connection to get the customers to care and to take action.     
A few examples of questions to ask to gain a mutual understanding of a need between a salesman and his prospect are the following:    
* How do you feel about the results you are getting now? HOW ARE THINGS NOW?  * Are you on plan to achieve your 1/3/5 year goals? DO YOU HAVE A PLAN TO ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS?   * Are there competitors in the market that are impeding your growth plans? WHO IS HURTING YOUR GOALS?   * How does that affect your business operations/sales? HOW ARE PRESENT CONDITIONS HURTING YOU?   * What impact is that having on your new client acquisition? Customer retention? Your product quality? Your productivity? Your cash flow? ARE YOU GAINING OR LOSING QUALITY, SERVICE, OR MONEY?    
When enough information is given so that the person can comprehend in intellectually resilient terms the scale of a tragic crisis, the real energy of compassion is again motivated, perhaps more effectively than by any other means. As Paul Slovic contends, "A pre-commitment is needed to strengthen legal and political structures to respond rather than to be silent witnesses. Especially now, with such a rampant appreciation of failure of moral intuition, the development of new institutional arrangements is even more urgent and critical to defeating indifference." ("The More Who Die, The Less We Care: Confronting Psychic Numbing," Science Committee Newsletter,, 2009)  
The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.                     
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference.                     
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference.                 
And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.  -Elie Wiesel      
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