Why We Grow Numb To Staggering Statistics — And What We Can Do About It

“People are not very good with large numbers,” says Elke Weber, a professor of psychology at Princeton University. “We don’t discriminate between 150,000 or 300,000 or 3 million.” Malte Mueller/Getty Images/fStop conceal caption

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Malte Mueller/Getty Images/fStop

“People are not very good with large numbers,” says Elke Weber, a professor of psychology at Princeton University. “We don’t discriminate between 150,000 or 300,000 or 3 million.”

Malte Mueller/Getty Images/fStop

COVID-19 has now killed more than 148,000 people in the U.S. On a typical day up to now week, greater than 1,000 folks died.

But the deluge of grim statistics can boring our collective sense of concern. And a part of that has to do with how people are constructed to understand the world.

“With any kind of consistent danger, people get used to situations like that,” says Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and of power and the surroundings at Princeton University. “When you live in a war zone, after a while, everyday risk becomes just baseline. Our neurons are wired in such a way that we only respond to change. And any state that’s constant basically sort of gets washed out.”

She says that is what’s taking place now with the coronavirus pandemic.

“People have just gotten used to being in this new state of danger, adapting to it, and therefore have not taken enough precaution anymore,” she says in an interview on All Things Considered.

Here are excerpts from the dialog.

During a battle, it is clear who the enemy is, who the people are that we’re combating in opposition to. But throughout a pandemic, is the sense of the enemy vaguer, and subsequently the toll that that enemy is taking up a society is not as clear minimize?

Absolutely. I feel that what you stated is so true in so many various methods. One of them is that with COVID we’re coping with a small virus. This tiny enemy can also be one thing that we as people cannot actually combat till we have now a vaccine and we have now to combat it with science. And so our normal safety mechanisms do not kick in.

And then on prime of that, additionally, if you concentrate on who’s the enemy when it comes to actions that result in loss of life, in some ways — and that is in that sense similar to local weather change — the enemy is us. So completely, I feel it’s extremely totally different from different conditions the place we would wish to kick into protecting motion, as a result of we’re not fairly certain what we wish to defend ourselves in opposition to.

So how can we make these simply astronomical statistics resonate extra with folks?

One factor is simply that persons are not excellent with giant numbers. We do not discriminate between 150,000 or 300,000 or three million.

And so to place it right into a context the place folks once more can think about what it means — wish to have the chance of dying of COVID — may be very useful. One in 2,000 Americans has died already. Now, most of us know 2,000 folks, or we stay in cities which might be multiples of two,000. We can think about how many individuals would have died in our city, in our acquaintances. That’s one excellent method of doing it.

The different one can be to say, properly, what cities and cities within the U.S. has COVID worn out at this level? And for those who stay in New Jersey, Paterson, N.J., is gone. It has a inhabitants of 145,000.

If you wish to put into New York context, Syracuse, N.Y., is gone, worn out, a complete city, metropolis worn out by the virus. Pasadena, Calif., is gone. Dayton, Ohio; Waco, Texas. So relying on the place you might be, making it native and making it concrete, I feel can actually assist.

Gabe O’Connor and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited the audio story. Maureen Pao adapated it for the Web.

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