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.