As COVID Numbers Rise, So Does ‘Psychic Numbing’


Dec. 23, 2020 — The headlines are sobering: “COVID-19 Deaths Surpass 9/11 Deaths in Single Day,” and, extra lately, “2020 is the Deadliest Year in U.S. History.”

It turns out that having 3,000 other people die on a daily basis will have to spark fashionable compassion and a metamorphosis in public conduct to prevent the unfold of the virus. But now not so. Despite pleas to stick put, vacation vacationers at Thanksgiving stuffed airports in document numbers for the pandemic, and airports are reporting busy shuttle for Christmas as smartly. People simply don’t forget about stay-at-home orders, they flout them. In Los Angeles, police arrested 158 other people at a ”super-spreader” celebration, regardless of stay-at-home orders. And a lot of other people nonetheless argue they’ve a proper to not put on a masks.

This seeming indifference that units in once we’re confronted with one of these disaster is understood through mental health professionals as psychic numbing, says Paul Slovic, PhD, a professor of psychology on the University of Oregon, Eugene, and president of Decision Research, a nonprofit institute that investigates choices of recent existence.

Psychic numbing ”is a loss of feeling related to knowledge,” he says. “The which means of knowledge is closely decided through the sensation that knowledge creates in us.”

“If some knowledge conveys a favorable feeling, that’s a sign to way regardless of the scenario is. If it sends a detrimental feeling, it’s a sign to retreat. We want those emotions to really perceive the which means of the tips.”

How we react to a disaster just like the pandemic is dependent upon the mode of pondering we’re the use of, Slovic says. He cites the paintings of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics for his paintings on decision-making and creator of the bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow.

Slow pondering makes use of mathematical fashions, Slovic says; it is how we had been taught to suppose in class. “We can suppose that manner however hardly do it as a result of it is arduous paintings,” he says. “The human mind is lazy; if it might probably [process information] thru feeling, that is our default mode of pondering.”

The handiest approach to perceive the have an effect on of the COVID toll, Slovic says, is to suppose slowly and sparsely so we perceive what science is telling us. Without doing so, because the numbers get larger and larger, he says, ”you do not really feel the rest in any respect; it is only a quantity.”

As Tragedy Rises, Concern Doesn’t Keep Up

In their analysis, Slovic and others even have discovered that any person’s fear about others in peril does not building up with the collection of other people affected. “One particular person in peril can sign a large number of robust emotions,” he says. “People will chance their lives to save lots of any person in peril.” That’s very true if the individual is a cherished one, he says.

However, ”if I instructed you there have been two other people in peril, you wouldn’t really feel two times as involved. You are already feeling fear about one. If there have been two, it’s possible you’ll really feel a bit extra involved.” Or, it’s possible you’ll really feel much less involved as a result of your consideration is split.

In one study, Slovic and his workforce offered 3 scenarios to school scholars: a 7-year-old woman who was once desperately deficient and wanted lend a hand, a 9-year-old boy who was once desperately deficient and wanted lend a hand, or each desiring lend a hand. Students gave upper donations when one particular person wanted lend a hand, he discovered.

He concluded that the decline in compassion might start with the second one endangered existence.

Regarding the COVID loss of life and case totals, he says, ”you wouldn’t have a way of the person lives. That’s psychic numbing. You lose feeling, you lose feelings. These are [just] dry statistics.”

Psychic Numbing and Other Issues

Psychic numbing could also be not unusual in different problems, together with local weather exchange, says Leif Griffin, PsyD, a medical psychologist within the San Francisco Bay Area

“Psychic numbing is that this adaptive manner of now not feeling or totally registering on an emotional stage this sort of risk or, in many ways, the tense enjoy that is happening,” he says.

So, yearly turns into warmer, however ”we do not need to take into consideration what it manner to our planet,” Griffin says. Psychic numbing permits us to ”take note of one thing however now not emotionally procedure or be in contact with the object that is happening.”

In some way, Griffin says, psychic numbing is like announcing, ”Don’t interfere on my sense of protection.”

Robert Jay Lifton, MD, a outstanding professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at The City University of New York, coined the time period psychic numbing.

“When I interviewed survivors of the primary atomic bomb dropped on a human inhabitants in Hiroshima, they incessantly described their minds roughly shutting down. I got here to name that psychic numbing.”

And, he says, “it may be adaptive,” serving to other people cope in some eventualities. In their instances, he says, it was once a protection mechanism to get throughout the enjoy.

But when psychic numbing persists within the face of risk, Lifton says, it might probably create really extensive issues, resulting in withdrawal and even depression. It’s one of the vital signs of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says.

Psychic numbing is taking part in a task within the COVID pandemic, Lifton says, as other people use it to check out to carry off their anxiety about loss of life.

Reducing COVID’s ‘Psychic Numbing’

Psychic numbing can impact conduct, together with resistance to mask-wearing and different preventive measures, Slovic and Lifton agree.

Public well being professionals want statistics to battle COVID, Slovic says, however he suggests additionally they attempt to cause a sense after they provide numbers in the event that they need to scale back psychic numbing.

For example, appearing a graph that displays the upward developments of instances and deaths may lend a hand. “Even if you do not know the precise quantity, you’ll see the curve goes directly up. You get a sense from taking a look at that fast-increasing curve,” he says.

Talking about particular person instances is any other excellent approach to lower psychic numbing, Slovic says. And as statistics are offered, well being care suppliers will have to speak about crowded in depth care gadgets and emergency rooms, he says. Stories of people that shriveled COVID after denying the chance also are tough, he says.

WebMD Health News


Paul Slovic, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Oregon; president, Decision Research, Eugene, OR.

Leif Griffin, PsyD, medical psychologist, San Francisco Bay Area.

Robert Jay Lifton, MD, outstanding professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology, The City University of New York.

American Psychological Association: “Paul Slovic observes the ‘psychic numbing’ of COVID-19.” 

WebMD: “CVID-19 Deaths Surpass 911 Deaths in Single Day.”

The Hill: “CDC Director: US COVID-19 Deaths Likely to Exceed 911 Toll for 60 Days.”

PLoS One: “Compassion Fade: Affect and Charity Are Greatest for a Single Child in Need.”

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