Why We Grow Numb To Staggering Statistics — And What We Can Do About It

Why We Grow Numb To Staggering Statistics — And What We Can Do About It

07/29/2020

Photo: Getty Images

NPR.org

COVID-19 has now killed more than 148,000 people in the U.S. On a typical day in the past week, more than 1,000 people died.

But the deluge of grim statistics can dull our collective sense of outrage. And part of that has to do with how humans are built to perceive the world.

"With any kind of consistent danger, people get used to situations like that," says Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and of energy and the environment at Princeton University. "When you live in a war zone, after a while, everyday risk becomes just baseline. Our neurons are wired in such a way that we only respond to change. And any state that's constant basically sort of gets washed out."

She says that's what's happening now with the coronavirus pandemic.

"People have just gotten used to being in this new state of danger, adapting to it, and therefore have not taken enough precaution anymore," she says in an interview on All Things Considered.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

During a war, it's clear who the enemy is, who the humans are that we are fighting against. But during a pandemic, is the sense of the enemy vaguer, and therefore the toll that that enemy is taking on a society isn't as clear cut?

Absolutely. I think that what you said is so true in so many different ways. One of them is that with COVID we're dealing with a small virus. This tiny enemy is also something that we as individuals can't really fight until we have a vaccine and we have to fight it with science. And so our usual protection mechanisms don't kick in.

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