When a photo appeared in September 2015 of a three-year old Syrian boy who drowned while trying to reach Europe with his family, the world seemed to momentarily open its eyes to a refugee crisis that had been quietly building for years.

The boy’s name was Alan Kurdi, and in the wake of his death donations to charities helping refugees surged. Migrant Offshore Aid Station, an international humanitarian aid organization dedicated to providing aid and emergency medical relief to refugees and migrants around the world, received a “tidal wave of support.” Donations to the Red Cross, which had set up a fund specifically to aid Syrian refugees in the weeks before Alan’s death, were 100 times greater during the week after publication of the photo than the week before.

According to The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2015 there was an estimated 60 million refugees worldwide (a number that has since grown to 69 million in 2018). More than 3,770 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe that year. But it took the image of a boy, face-down on a Turkish beach, for the world to wake up to the crisis.

It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. But there’s more to it than that. Paul Slovic, President of Decision Research and Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon who studies risk and decision-making, has a simple explanation for this sudden surge in interest and action: the human brain is bad at math.

In what Slovic calls the “arithmetic of compassion,” the human brain fails to multiply one person’s suffering by millions. In fact, he says, research shows that “the more who die, the less we care.”

Psychic Numbing

The refugee crisis wasn’t new, but the photo tapped into what the human brain does best: empathize with the individual. In that one photo, many people saw their own child at that age. Or their nephew or grandson or little brother. They could connect emotionally, and that enabled them to respond with action.

Slovic’s research has shown that statistics of mass tragedies don’t elicit the emotional response required to provoke action. This is because the brain has two different ways of processing information: fast and slow. Fast thinking relies on instinct and is what we typically call our “gut reaction.” Slow thinking relies on careful deliberation and logic. People tend to rely on fast thinking in most daily decision-making. But intuitive feelings don’t do math very well.

The brain is unable to empathize with groups, so when presented with a large number of people affected by a tragedy, we can’t add up the suffering of one and translate it to the many. This emotional insensitivity is called psychic numbing, and it doesn’t just apply to large groups of people. The effect is seen when the number goes from just one to two. “People will risk their own life to save one person nearby,” says Slovic. “But as numbers increase, the lives don’t feel as valuable.”

False Sense of Inefficacy

In addition to psychic numbing, good intentions are often derailed by a false sense that what we can do won’t help.

In one study Slovic and his team gave two groups of participants an opportunity to help a starving child. In one group, the participants were shown just the photo of the child. In the second group, they were shown the photo accompanied by statistics about the number of children starving in that region of the world. The researchers thought the statistics might encourage more people to donate. They did not. The participants who saw the statistics donated 40% less. It turns out, people didn’t feel as good donating to one child when there were many more they could not help.

“We help others not only because they need our help, but because we get a good feeling—a warm glow—when we help them,” says Slovic. “The trouble is that it doesn’t feel as good to help someone when our attention is drawn to the fact that there are others whom we are not able to help.”

The emotional system in the brain lets in irrelevant factors that dampen the positive influence of helping. It is wired to search for clues that an action is “good,” and will resist actions that may be associated with “less good” or “bad” outcomes. A number of studies have shown that the percentage of people helped is more important in decision-making than the number of people helped. A percentage gives the brain boundaries from which to evaluate the action. For instance, Slovic found that college students were more likely to support an airport safety measure that helped save 98% of 150 lives at stake versus a measure designed to save 150 lives.

This is illogical. But the problem lies in the perception of what is “good.” One hundred and fifty is just a number, with nothing to give it context. Ninety-eight percent of 150 is “most” of the at-risk lives, and therefore “good.”

Even Partial Solutions Save Whole Lives

Slovic notes that it’s important to understand these psychological effects, because that is the only way to overcome them. We can’t assume statistics will capture the attention of the community or motivate them to take action, no matter how large the numbers.

“I want to emphasize that the indifference to suffering…is not the result of the behavior of ‘bad people,’” says Slovic, in a talk he gave in Kenya in June 2018. “It results from psychological tendencies that affect all of us if we don’t understand how they work and take steps to prevent them from misleading us.”

“Be aware and protect against the false sense of inefficacy,” he says. “None of us can fix these problems by ourselves, but we can all do something meaningful. Even small actions can make a difference to one or more individuals.”

What This Means for Lions

Steps you can take to overcome psychological barriers to action and engage your community in causes that matter:

  • Make it personal – Tell the individual stories of those in need on social media or through local media.
  • Bring beneficiaries to life – Communicate the hopes and dreams of those impacted by your cause.
  • Give concrete ways to help – This helps people envision the process and outcomes.
  • Think small – Show your community how a small effort can make a big impact, even if it doesn’t “fix” the whole problem.