Why it is hard to mourn the vast number of Covid deaths

By expanding one’s sense of compassion, we can apply it to more than one individual at a time

By Sara Konrath

Published: Wed 23 Dec 2020, 11:38 AM

Last updated: Wed 23 Dec 2020, 11:39 AM

The US recently surpassed a Covid-19 marker: over 300,000 dead. So where is the collective mourning?

I’m an empathy scientist, and can report that we are not a nation of psychopaths. Cognitive biases — common errors in thinking — make it difficult to process tragedy of this scale over time, creating a sense of psychological distance between us and the Covid-19 deaths. By understanding how these biases work, people can train themselves to feel the weight of our country’s losses again.

Several types of cognitive bias are warping Americans’ ability to process Covid today. First is the numeracy bias, the brain’s inability to wrap itself around large numbers. We can easily feel empathy for specific individuals, especially those who are close to us. But as these individuals turn into groups, our empathy is diminished. Suffering becomes more emotionally distant and abstract, and turns into a statistic. And people are not good at reasoning about statistics.

Another cognitive bias is the ostrich effect: people’s tendency to avoid negative information. Daryl Cameron, a Penn State scientist who studies compassion avoidance, shows participants pictures of distressed people, such as refugees. Immediately afterward, participants can then choose to “try to feel what the person feels” and “empathically share in the internal emotional experience of the person,” or they can choose to simply describe external details about the picture, such as the person’s age and gender. Participants choose empathy only 36 per cent of the time. Cameron’s research shows that people actively try to suppress their emotions to avoid feeling overwhelmed in the face of mass tragedy.

Time messes with our concrete sensory brains, too. The recency effect creates a crippling nearsightedness, where events that are closer to the present are more vivid in our imaginations. A process called hedonic adaptation numbs us to the pandemic’s rise over time, as one death per day becomes 10 deaths per day, then 50, then 500, then 1,000, then 2,000.

Vivid experiences can skew perception by activating a type of cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic, the tendency to overestimate the prevalence of events that more easily come to mind. This type of bias is the reason people worry about uncommon events like airplane crashes and terrorist attacks.

So how can we counter these patterns of thinking, and become more sensitive to mass suffering?

By expanding one’s sense of compassion, we can apply it to more than one individual at a time.

Some are better at this than others. Those who feel secure in their relationships with others show less numeracy bias. For more insecure people, thinking of someone who loves them unconditionally can help them extend more compassion to the world, even when events are remote and actors are anonymous. Some studies have found that people who have experienced adversity are less likely to show the numeracy bias, and actually feel more compassion for groups, compared to individuals.

Another response: accept that numeracy bias is part of how our brains work, and focus on individual victims instead of groups. Public memorials can be helpful for this. One study found that people’s feelings of empathic sadness increased with the numbers when they could see pictures of the people affected.

As for the ostrich effect, feelings of helplessness at suffering’s scope don’t have to prevent us from acting. Some people deliberately seek out others in need. And research finds that those who feel a sense of efficacy — that they can do small things to help — don’t get as overwhelmed.

To combat hedonic adaptation, we can try to mindfully accept negative information. Instead of focusing on the number of deaths yesterday, we can compare today’s total number of deaths—more than 310,000—to February’s—one death—or the first day of fall—201,000. The contrast may feel more appropriately shocking when tracked this way. And to counter the availability heuristic, we can peruse our social media with renewed focus. Sharing personal experiences with Covid online may be the best means now available for painting a vivid portrait of the disease.

Cognitive biases may psychologically minimise the pandemic’s scope, but we can take small steps to minimise its scope. Mother Teresa sagely advised: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” By wearing masks, washing hands, and staying home, you are doing just that.

Sara Konrath directs the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. —Zocalo Public Square

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