One Death v. One Million

Any reporter who has covered a humanitarian disaster should understand what Stalin is once reported to have said to a fellow Soviet official: The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic. [Note this account is most likely apocryphal.]

This is why news coverage of a famine or a flood will often highlight the story of one victim.

Or why, say, Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, galvanized global attention to the larger refugee crisis.

It is not easy to wrap one’s mind around thousands of deaths. It becomes an abstraction of geopolitics, economics, conflict dynamics — of statistics.

But a single death can be understood in the more relatable terms of, say, a grieving father or a desperate spouse. Or a murdered journalist, like Mr. Khashoggi.

Psychologists have repeatedly found that people experience a greater emotional reaction to one death than to many, even if the circumstances are identical. Perversely, the more victims, the less sympathy that people feel.

The effect even has a name: collapse of compassion. It’s not that we can’t care about a million deaths, psychologists believe. Rather, we fear being overwhelmed and switch off our own emotions in preemptive self-defense.”

— Max Fisher, “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not“, New York Times

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