"If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
Mother Teresa.
Paul Slovic writes in the March 2007 issue of Foreign Policy that people don’t ignore mass killings because they lack compassion. Rather, it’s the horrific statistics of genocide and mass murder that may paralyze us into inaction. Those hoping that grim numbers alone will spur us to action in places like Darfur have no hope at all. Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue “the one” whose plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of “the one” who is “one of many” in a much greater problem.

It’s happening right now in regards to Darfur, where over 200,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the past four years and at least another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes.

Slovic says: "A recent study I conducted with Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University found that donations to aid a starving 7-year-old child in Africa declined sharply when her image was accompanied by a statistical summary of the millions of needy children like her in other African countries. The numbers appeared to interfere with people’s feelings of compassion toward the young victim. When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, “At what number do other individuals blur for me?” In other words, when does “compassion fatigue” set in? Our research suggests that the “blurring” of individuals may begin as early as the number two.

Why aren’t these horrific statistics sparking us to action? Why do good people ignore mass murder and genocide?

Paul Slovic is president of Decision Research and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. He studies risk and decision-making. Read his article at

Posted March, 15, 2007


Arthur McCorry said...

I am reminded of the story of the two guys walking along the beach on which a lot of starfish had washed up. One guy picked up a starfish every so often and tossed into back into the ocean. His companion asked him why he was doing that and the reply was that if he didn't toss it back into the ocean it would die. His companion remarked that this was somewhat pointless since there were millions of starfish washed up and what difference did he think he was making. He picked up another starfish and tossed it into the ocean remarking: "I just made a difference to that one!"

Maybe we have to become numb to the greater problem while still working on the bit that we can solve?


Desmond. said...

I think that we all, because we are human, feel a sense, firstly of great sadness, then despair and then helplessness when we hear of these situations. The starfish analogy is a good one.

I suppose the fact is that oceans are made up of single drops of water and we have to realise that even small actions make a difference to those helped and we should not let the sheer scale of the problem put us off doing what we can.

There are many excellent organisations (Tear Fund, Christian Aid and many more) who have the expertise to help deal with these types of situations and they provide a channel that we can trust to enable us to send help to distressed people.

It is,sadly,sometimes not possible to provide help in a tangible way through these organisations because of conflict on the ground.
When this is the case, I think that we can easily have feelings of despair & helplessness.

PRD said...

Isn't this what the United Nations organization is for! What does it do? It is supposed to have a military force - I suggest that they take it out of where it is and put it into Dafur. If the Sudanese object what are they going to object with?

Frankly, the U.S.A. is footing most of the bill for the U.N. and what is it getting for its money? If genocide isn't first on the UN's list what is? prd

Michael N. Hull said...


I tend to agree. I was on a tour at the U.N. recently and I asked why the U.N. never seems to get the 'big' things done. I was told that the Nations of the U.N. have to agree because it is a consensus organization and there are always some of them opposed to any proposed action. Thus no action!

So I guess we are paying for lots of talk.


Avid Reader said...


Re the U.N. I would direct your attention to

In an article entitled ‘Made in the USA’ Perry Anderson basically says that Kofi Annan was a nice guy with a couple of speech writers behind him and that the UN is basically a tool of the USA.

The article says in part....

Quote “The real work of the UN is the manufacture not of actions but of legitimations, the two key figures were the set's ventriloquists, who wrote the speeches and articles furbishing the Secretary General with his rhetorical image--much needed, since Annan's own powers of expression were wooden in the extreme. This pair, Edward Mortimer and Nader Mousavizadeh, came from the Financial Times and The New Republic, respectively. Not surprisingly, Annan's various pronouncements, applauded for their eloquence by like-minded colleagues across the West, were little more than lofty versions of editorials in these publications, whose political profile needs little specification. Mortimer, from a high clerical background in England, was a founder of the International Committee for a Free Iraq along with Ahmad Chalabi. Relations between them remained sufficiently close, Meisler tells us, for Chalabi to tip him off in advance of the Oil for Food affair. Mousavizadeh, editor of The Black Book of Bosnia, though technically a Dane, "was essentially American"--so says Traub--"and, like Ruggie, could not view international law as the summum bonum." Later, Mousavizadeh was elected a Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in Davos, where Ruggie once conducted Annan as "the first Secretary-General to speak to the annual conclave of capital." Mousavizadeh now adorns Goldman Sachs, presumably pending higher things.

The United States cannot count on always securing UN legitimation of its actions ex ante. But where this is wanting, retrospective validation is readily available, as the occupation of Iraq has shown. What is categorically excluded is active opposition of the UN to any significant US initiative. A Security Council resolution, let alone a Secretary General, condemning an American action is unthinkable. Ban Ki-moon, whose appointment required Chinese assent, may keep a lower profile than Annan, but his role is unlikely to be very different. The US grip on the organization has not relaxed, as can be seen from recent UN resolutions on Lebanon and Iran, which the White House could never have obtained so easily before. Anxious voices from liberal opinion, worrying that the organization might become irrelevant if Bush's "unilateralism" persists, and plaintive appeals from the left to defend the UN from distortion by Washington, are regularly heard today. They can be reassured. The future of the United Nations is safe. It will continue to be, as it was intended to be, a serviceable auxiliary mechanism of the Pax Americana.” End quote

I recommend that you read the whole thing – the USA may be getting exactly what it is paying for!

Ever, DM

Arthur McCorry said...

I heard on CNN today something to the effect that the UN would be discussing Dafur "over lunch".

That about sums it up!


Helen Wright said...


I liked the bit about the stroll along the beach. We can indeed help on an individual basis. Small things add up!

I am a Presbyterian and our denomination has been trying to do our bit in helping out. Take a look at

where you will find information about how to help.

Helen Wright

Pianoman said...

Michael I think the Boston Globe agrees with you. In a GLOBE EDITORIAL "Light on the Darfur darkness" published March 19, 2007 it said.....

"Future generations will not easily forgive the governments and international bodies that have allowed the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan to continue uninterrupted and unpunished year after year. So a report this week prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Council by a "High-Level Mission on the Situation of Human Rights in Darfur" should be welcome as a beam of bright light pointed into this 21st-century heart of darkness.

Basing its recommendations on the 2005 UN affirmation of a "responsibility to protect" civilians not protected by their own governments, the mission's report tells some hard truths -- free of jargon or obfuscation.

It says the human rights situation is deteriorating, the areas in which humanitarian aid workers can operate are shrinking, and aid workers are often targeted by government-backed militias. "Killing of civilians remains widespread, including in large-scale attacks. Rape and sexual violence are widespread and systematic. Torture continues."

In an implicit condemnation of the National Islamic Front that rules Sudan, the report notes that "as violations and abuses continue unabated, a climate of impunity prevails." More explicitly, the mission finds that the regime in Khartoum has resisted and obstructed efforts by the United Nations and the African Union to put a stop to systematic human rights violations in Darfur and "grave breaches of international humanitarian law."

Even more damning, the report saysthe NIF regime "has itself orchestrated and participated in those crimes." And the mission report does not shrink from drawing the inescapable conclusion that, in light of Khartoum's role in perpetrating the genocide in Darfur, "the solemn obligation of the international community to exercise its responsibility to protect has become evident and urgent."

Sadly, the UN Human Rights Council cannot be expected to act upon the grave truths reported by the mission, which was headed by Jody Williams, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts leading to adoption of the international treaty banning land mines. Even before the panel undertook its work, allies and clients of Sudan on the Human Rights Council objected to the very idea of investigating the Darfur genocide. And since its inception last June, the Council has passed only eight resolutions, all against Israel.

The helpful actions that the mission report recommends to the council and the Sudan regime are almost certain to fall into a void. Its recommendations to the UN Security Council to protect civilians through deployment of an effective peacekeeping force by the African Union and United Nations may be feasible. But that can happen only if enough international pressure is applied to persuade Sudan's petroleum partner, China, to stop protecting the perpetrators of genocide."