Even if we try our best to grasp mass death, we inevitably come up against cognitive biases, says Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who studies human judgment and decision-making.
The biggest bias is scope neglect: as the scale of deaths and tragedy grows, our own compassion and concern fail to keep pace. As the title of one of Slovic’s papers on the subject goes: “The more who die, the less we care.”
This is, of course, not rational — by any reasonable, moral calculation, we should find 250,000 deaths commensurately more horrifying than a smaller number. But in practice we don’t, almost as if we had a set capacity for empathy and concern that tops out well below the scale of a pandemic.
It doesn’t help that for most of us — save bereaved family members and health care workers on the front line — those deaths go unseen, hidden behind the walls of hospitals and funeral homes.