The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first U.S. death from COVID-19 on Feb. 29, 2020. Within a month, more than 1,000 Americans were dying on a single day. Since then, we’ve reached that daily number many times over. Some days, more than 2,500 people have died. And yet, many are largely disconnected from the pain, unwilling or unable to recognize or process the loss.

Where is the collective mourning? I am an empathy scientist, and I can report that we are not a nation of psychopaths. People have a limited capacity to process mass suffering, rather than a callous lack of care. Cognitive biases — common errors in thinking — make it difficult to process tragedy of this scale over time, creating a sense of psychological distance between us and the number of COVID-19 deaths. By understanding how various cognitive biases work, however, people can train themselves to feel the weight of our country’s losses again.

Several types of cognitive bias are warping Americans’ ability to process COVID-19 today. First is the numeracy bias, the brain’s inability to wrap itself around large numbers. I logged onto Facebook recently and was saddened by a message from one of my friends announcing the death of his cousin from COVID-19. My friend wrote that behind every statistic, there is a person and a family — and that this time, it was him.

He was echoing a popular quote: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” which has been attributed to Stalin. The quote demonstrates something that scientists have long known. We can easily feel empathy for specific individuals, especially those who are close to us. But as these individuals turn into groups, our empathy is diminished. Their suffering becomes more emotionally distant and abstract, and turns into a statistic. And people are not good at reasoning about statistics.

Another cognitive bias at work during the COVID-19 crisis is the ostrich effect: people’s tendency to avoid negative information, including everything from bad financial returns to another person’s misery. This may be because of a sense of helplessness, common in the face of mass tragedy. Even if we want to help, our actions never seem to be enough.

Time messes with our concrete sensory brains, too. The recency effect creates a crippling nearsightedness, where events that are closer to the present are more vivid in our imaginations. A process called hedonic adaptation numbs us to the pandemic’s rise over time, as one death per day becomes 10 deaths per day, then 50, then 500, then 1,000 and then 2,000. While COVID-19 seemed to have taken over our lives very quickly, the number of deaths accelerated and then crept up or down subtly over weeks and months, giving people time to get used to the new normal, and dulling their emotional response.

Vivid experiences can skew perception by activating a type of cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic, the tendency to overestimate the prevalence of events that more easily come to mind. According to a survey from late August, 27 percent of Americans said that a close friend or family member had tested positive for COVID-19, and 15 percent said that a close friend or family member had died from it. Despite our lives having drastically changed as the summer drew to a close, the vast majority of Americans still had no personal experience with the virus.

So what can we do to counter these deeply ingrained patterns of thinking, and become more sensitive to mass suffering?

To combat numeracy bias, some might suggest thinking more logically would be the solution. Yet, research finds that logical thinking can actually backfire: When it comes to charitable donations, for instance, people driven by logic often realize that giving to individual victims is an emotional response that doesn’t really make sense.

A better approach involves expanding one’s sense of compassion so that we can apply it to more than one individual at a time. Some people are better at this than others. For example, those who feel secure in their relationships with others show less numeracy bias. They do not need to know someone’s name or see a picture to understand that a tragedy is a tragedy — even when it affects a group. For more insecure people, thinking of someone who loves them unconditionally can help them extend more compassion to the world, even when events are remote and actors are anonymous.

Some studies have found that people who have experienced adversity are less likely to show the numeracy bias, and actually feel more compassion for groups, compared to individuals. Shifting into a more interdependent frame of mind can also help people resist the numeracy bias. Focusing on “we-ness” — the simple act of thinking about what you have in common with others — can increase this mindset.

At the end of May, when the country reached 100,000 deaths, the entire front page of the New York Times was a list of names, ages, locations and short descriptions of individuals who had died. It was hard not to be moved; I still think of Rodrick “Rod” Samuels, 49, who “never let anyone mess with his younger brother.”

As for the ostrich effect, feelings of helplessness at the scope of suffering can prevent us from acting, but they don’t have to. There are some people who deliberately seek out others in need. These highly empathic people aren’t superheroes or saints, but instead, expect that helping others will feel good. And plenty of research supports this idea, finding that those who feel a sense of efficacy — that they can do small things to help — don’t get as overwhelmed. Such efforts don’t have to be heroic or costly. In the case of the pandemic, we can save lives by hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing. Focusing on these concrete ways that we can make a difference can help people feel less overwhelmed.

Cognitive biases may psychologically minimize the scope of the pandemic, but there are small steps that we can each take to actually minimize the scope of it. Mother Teresa had some sage advice on this front: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” By wearing a mask, washing your hands, staying home whenever possible and otherwise socially distancing, you are doing just that.

Sara Konrath directs the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and is currently a visiting professor at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. zocalopublicsquare.org © Zocalo

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.