As COVID Numbers Rise, So Does ‘Psychic Numbing’

December 23, 2020 – Headlines are sobering: “COVID-19 deaths overtake September 11 deaths in a single day” and, most recently, “2020 is deadliest year in state history -United.”

It appears that the deaths of 3,000 people every day should spark widespread compassion and a change in public behavior to stop the spread of the virus. But no. Despite calls to stay put, Thanksgiving airport vacation travelers have surged in record numbers for the pandemic, and airports are also reporting busy Christmas trips. People just don’t ignore stay-at-home orders, they flout them. In Los Angeles, police arrested 158 people at a “super-spreader” party, despite stay-at-home orders. And many people still argue that they have the right not to wear a mask.

This apparent indifference that sets in when we are faced with such a crisis is known by mental health experts as psychic numbness, says Paul Slovic, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and president. of Decision Research, a nonprofit institute that studies the decisions of modern life.

Psychic numbness “is a lack of feeling associated with information,” he says. “The meaning of information is strongly determined by the feeling that information creates in us.”

“If there is a piece of information that conveys a positive feeling, it is a signal to address whatever the situation is. If it sends a negative feeling, it is a signal to withdraw. We need those feelings to really understand the meaning of the situation. ‘information.”

How we respond to a crisis like the pandemic depends on the way of thinking we use, says Slovic. He cites the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on decision-making and author of the bestseller. Think quickly and slowly.

Slow thinking uses mathematical models, says Slovic; this is how we were taught to think at school. “We can think of it that way, but we rarely do it because it’s hard work,” he says. “The human brain is lazy; if it can [process information] by feeling, this is our default way of thinking. “

The only way to understand the impact of the COVID toll, Slovic says, is to think slowly and carefully in order to understand what the science is telling us. Without it, as the numbers get bigger and bigger, he says, “you don’t feel anything at all; it’s just a number. “

As the tragedy mounts, worry doesn’t follow

In their research, Slovic and others also found that a person’s worry about others at risk does not increase with the number of people affected. “A person in danger can report a lot of strong feelings,” he says. “People risk their lives to save someone in danger.” This is especially true if the person is a loved one, he says.

However, “if I told you that there were two people in danger, you wouldn’t feel twice as worried. You already feel preoccupied with one. If there were two, you might feel a little more worried. Or, you might feel less concerned because your attention is divided.

In one study, Slovic and his team presented three scenarios to students: a 7-year-old girl who was desperately poor and needed help, a 9-year-old boy who was desperately poor and needed help, or them. two needed help. Students donated larger amounts when someone needed help, he found.

He concluded that the decline in compassion can begin with the second life threatening.

When it comes to the total number of deaths and COVID cases, he says, “you don’t have an idea of ​​individual life. It’s psychic numbness. You lose feeling, you lose emotions. These are [just] dry statistics. “

Psychic numbness and other problems

Psychic numbness is also common in other problems, including climate change, says Leif Griffin, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Psychic numbness is this adaptive way of not feeling or fully emotionally registering the type of threat or, in some ways, the traumatic experience that is occurring,” he says.

So each year gets hotter, but “we don’t want to think about what that means for our planet,” Griffin says. Psychic numbness allows us “to be aware of something but not of an emotional process or to be in touch with the thing that is happening. “

In a way, Griffin says, psychic numbness is like saying, “Don’t interfere with my sense of security.”

Robert Jay Lifton, MD, a distinguished professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at the University of the City of New York, coined the term psychic numbness.

“When I interviewed survivors of the first atomic bomb dropped on a human population in Hiroshima, they often described their minds sort of shutting down. I came to call it psychic numbness.”

And, he says, “it can be adaptive,” helping people cope with certain situations. In their case, he said, it was a defense mechanism to experience it.

But when psychic numbness persists in the face of danger, Lifton says, it can create considerable problems, leading to withdrawal or even depression. It’s one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says.

Psychic numbness plays a role in the COVID pandemic, Lifton says, as people use it to try to contain their anxiety about death.

Reduce mental numbness from COVID

Psychic numbness can affect behavior, including resistance to masks and other preventative measures, Slovic and Lifton agree.

Public health experts need statistics to fight COVID, Slovic says, but suggests they also try to trigger a sentiment when presenting numbers if they want to reduce psychic numbness.

For example, showing a graph that shows increasing trends in cases and deaths might help. “Even if you don’t know the exact number, you can see the curve going straight up. You get an impression looking at this fast growing curve, ”he says.

Talking about individual cases is another good way to reduce psychic numbness, Slovic says. And as the statistics come in, healthcare providers should talk about crowded intensive care units and emergency rooms, he says. The stories of people who contracted COVID after denying the risk are also powerful, he says.

WebMD Health News


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

Leif Griffin, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist, San Francisco Bay Area.

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

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

WebMD: “CVID-19 deaths exceed 911 deaths in a single day”.

The hill: “CDC Director: Deaths from COVID-19 in United States likely to exceed 911 toll for 60 days.”

PLoS One: “Bland Compassion: Affection and charity are greatest for a single child in need.”

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