Emotion in Storytelling: Psychic Numbing

Have you heard of ‘psychic numbing’?

As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.

The Limits Of Human Compassion, Vox

(Robert J. Lifton coined the term in 1967.)

Psychic numbing is at play when a story about one empathetic character trapped in a concentration camp is more likely to induce tears than a documentary offering an overview of Nazi Germany, even though the mass murder of many should logically be more upsetting than the murder of an individual.

Psychic numbing is why the vast majority of stories focus on one main character, perhaps alternating points of view, but focusing on one at a time. Increased popularity of the close third person viewpoint, replacing a more omniscient point of view favoured by writers of the 1800s, suggests modern storytellers are more aware of this human tendency.

Think of the novels and films that have brought you to tears. Chances are, those stories were about an individual rather than an entire population.

Think of a time when you were affected by someone’s situation in real life. More likely than not, that person seemed alone in the world.

Garry Frost from the New Zealand/Australian band Moving Pictures is the writer of the song “What About Me?” Frost was in a corner shop one day and saw a young boy with autism trying to buy something. The boy was struggling to communicate what he wanted and kept getting pushed to the back of the line.

Saddened and appalled by this, Garry Frost went on to write the iconic song.

While storytellers understand the phenomenon of psychic numbing in order to tell resonant stories with empathetic main characters, we should all be aware of this cognitive bias. We can’t exactly live happily in a world of constant bad news without an ability to turn off empathy. We’d be emotional wrecks without it.

Unfortunately, the terrible downsides of this human ability can be catastrophic. See The Arithmetic of Compassion, a website which exists to combat the negative consequences of psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy and the prominence effect.

Header painting by Sir Luke Fildes – The Widower 1875-76

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