Why We Can Be Left Numb By The Climbing COVID-19 Death Toll

Dec 11, 2020
Originally published on December 11, 2020 12:25 pm

The U.S. hit a horrific milestone this week: More than 3,000 COVID-19 fatalities in just one day. But rising deaths do not necessarily translate into rising concern.


Seeing someone die and hearing death data are very different, as University of Oregon psychology professor Paul Slovic points out.

Slovic says some would risk their lives to save one person from drowning. But, he said, "If I told you that there were 87 people in danger, and then all of the sudden I said, 'Oh no, wait a minute, there's 88,' You wouldn't feel any different" – even though that's one more life.

As the number of deaths grow, he says it can actually be harder to care because we can’t relate to that number.

"There's a saying that statistics are human beings with the tears dried off," Slovic said. "And so we don't make an emotional connection to the numbers, and we need that emotional connection to motivate us to do something."

He stresses that the media must tell the stories of those individual lives lost, and it’s up to people to listen.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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