How Understanding “Psychic Numbing” Can Help You Recruit More Volunteers

On July 19th, Vox published a facinating article by Brian Resnik called “A Psychologist Explains the Limits of Human Compassion.”

It underscored something that I’ve suspected for a long time: when we focus on the vastness of “the refugee crisis” and the untold masses of people who are hurting and in need of help, people tune out.

But, why?

Turns out, it has to do with something called psychologist Paul Slovic calls “psychic numbing”:

The author of the article describes this phenomenon this way: “As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases.”

The reason for this, is that a “single object is easier to visualize and to connect to.” Millions of people, by contrast, are only possible to think about in the abstract.

So, as the numbers we are thinking about increase our “sensitivity” decreases, and our feeling of “inefficacy” increases, making us say, “Well, what can I do about such a big problem?” And so we sigh and move onto the  next depressing news story in our Facebook feed.

So, how can we use our understanding of “psychic numbing” and its opposite, “the singularity effect” to more effectively recruit others to love and serve immigrants?

Well, the truth is, “people care about individuals.” We aren’t wired to save “the masses” but to reach out in compassion to the person right in front of us.

We cannot possibly help everyone. But we can, as Andy Stanley says, “do for one what we wish we could do for all.”

Being aware of this human limitation (that we’re only able to truly empathize with individuals, not “the masses”) will help us in at least two ways:

1.”[Individual] stories are important, and they can be very effective.”

“Though it may be tempting to share statistics and numbers about the enormity of the refugee crisis or the number of international students living in your country, consider leaving this out of your next presentation or conversation.

Maybe it would be more effective to tell the story of one immigrant family you have befriended in the past, or share more about the one apartment complex where many recently resettled refugees live.

2. Individual stories are only effective “if there’s an action that can be taken, then, while you’re engaged.”

I have heard too many well meaning advocates for welcoming immigrants freeze up when interviewers ask them for next steps (“Ok, so what do we DO?”). I understand why they struggle to answer this question, because it’s hard to know what to tell people sometimes! It’s hard to know where to begin.

I’d encourage you to think about this question for your community, for the people you’re talking to. Think, if they are touched by what you say in a presentation or a casual conversation, what can you tell them to do next?

Don’t waste the opportunity by giving vague answers about raising awareness or reading books (though of course reading books is a good thing!).

Instead, take the opportunity to get them plugged in to something making a real difference in people’s lives!

  • Maybe it’s to join you delivering furniture to a newly arrived refugee family on Saturday.
  • Maybe it’s to help you at the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) class that your church hosts.
  • Maybe it’s to join a language partner program (where international students are paired with Americans to work on English language) through your local university.

I don’t know what it is for you and your friends, but you know. What are the opportunities? Be a connector who facilitates connections between individuals, knowing that this is the way humans–whether immigrants or natives–were wired to relate.










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