Mother Theresa said “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
Josef Stalin said “One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.”
Numerous experiments have helped verify the truth behind what both the saint and the mass murderer knew intuitively, that we relate more closely to what happens to one person than to what happens to large numbers of people.
Paul Slovic, one of the pioneers of research into the way we perceive risk, calls this greater concern for the one than the many “a fundamental deficiency in our humanity.
” As the world watches but, insufficiently moved, fails to act to prevent mass starvation or stop genocides in Congo or Kosovo or Cambodia or so many more, who would not agree with such a lament.
“But as heartless as it seems to care more about the one than the many, it makes perfect sense in terms of human psychology.
“You are a person, not a number. You don’t see digits in the mirror, you see a face. And you don’t see a crowd.
“You see an individual. So you and I relate more powerfully to the reality of a single person than to the numbing faceless nameless lifeless abstraction of numbers.
“Statistics,” as Slovic put it in a paper titled “Psychic Numbing and Genocide” , “are human beings with the tears dried off.”
This tendency to relate more emotionally to the reality of a single person than to two or more people, or to the abstraction of statistics, is especially powerful when it comes to the way we perceive risk and danger.
Because what might happen to a single real person, might happen to you.