Understanding psychic numbing: can we grow numb to trauma?

2020 has been so far a year marked by an endless succession of issues; it would be hard to take them all into account, as each deserves a great deal of attention and should be discussed separately to be fully understood. However, we can focus on the psychological effect of two major problems that for the first time had to be tackled with urgency: the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the antiracist protests that began in America.

If we think back to the beginning of the year, we see how Covid-19 was already dominating the global scene. From a European perspective, it didn’t take long before most countries started to fearfully monitor the situation in China as it began to become more and more affected by the spreading of Covid. Once the virus reached Europe, any other previous issue became suddenly secondary: public safety and death-count control became the only real priorities in most countries, especially when the epidemic was escalated to a pandemic level.

Since then, our daily life has been undeniably dominated by numbers: infected, deaths, survivors. We are updated on these values on a daily basis and they virtually control our lives, as an increase or decrease in them will allow easing or strengthening of lockdowns.

The pandemic was the only, dominant topic in the media until the Black Lives Matter protests started in America. At that point, the issue of racism became the centre of attention. People, tired of living in the anxiety of lockdowns and quarantines, could focus on a new, important issue, which was rightfully brought forward by the BLM movement. The riots that spread worldwide for a whole month became the new focus of attention, as Coronavirus seemed to fade away in the background. However, it now feels again impossible to ignore the virus. As America’s infection numbers continue to rise by the thousands every day and some European countries are going back to lockdowns, it has become necessary to re-educate the population to social distancing and consider again putting in place quarantines.

Psychic numbing in the context of the pandemic

Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve all become more and more familiar with specific numbers that are daily presented to us; at the beginning of the pandemic, as the virus started to spread in Europe, we were all aware of the number of deaths, infected and recovered in different countries. Most of us felt an emotional connection to these numbers, which sometimes gave us hope, other times complete desperation. This situation became the norm for the first few months of lockdown when the only realistic option to prevent the spread of the virus was to respect the strict quarantines and social distancing measured.

However, as these numbers have steadily continued to increase, we find ourselves living in a very changed situation; the way we relate to it is incredibly different from what it was. We are becoming so used to hearing internationally recorded values, that we are somewhat unaware of them. Currently, worldwide, almost 800.000 people have died due to Covid-19 and the number of infected as well passed the 20millions marki. These are exorbitant values and the fact that we are becoming so used to hearing them and so emotionally detached by them must be investigated. Paradoxically, we could say that it almost felt easier to understand the impact of the pandemic when these numbers were lower.

As a matter of fact, the idea that the more people are affected by a tragic event (in this case, the spreading of the virus), the less we emotionally relate to the event itself is fundamentally true and is at the basis of a well-studied psychological phenomenon known as psychic numbingii.

We can start to understand the origin of psychic numbing by looking at how human beings were organised in their most primordial societies. These were all small, familiar communities and represented the types of societies we are most comfortable with due to their restricted number of inhabitantsiii. They allowed us to connect with a limited number of people, as they usually were made up of 50-100 individuals, who we shared our daily struggles with and were able to relate to. This also meant that we shared the issues and dramas of every single citizen of our society and were able to strongly relate to them on an emotional level; overall, this allowed human beings to feel part of a bigger community, which they were ready to help and provide for, due to an emotional attachment that bounded the single person to the group.

If we look at our societies now, it is easy to realise that they are fundamentally different, as we are projected in the capitalistic, overpopulated megacities. As much as cities are themselves subdivided in smaller neighbours and we ourselves tend to organise in even smaller family groups, we are still bombarded, in our daily life, by not only national issues but also by international struggles and crises. Due to the scale of the events featured in the media today, we are exposed to very high numbers and, especially in the case of the pandemic, the death of thousands of people is reported to us almost on a daily basis. However, we are not emotionally capable of coping with such high numbers.

Therefore, psychic numbing is a fundamental psychological response we unconsciously put in place to cope with particularly distressing times, as an innate protective mechanism against what would be an incredible amount of psychological traumaiv. Overall, this causes us to be unable to emotionally relate to these numbers, which makes us detached from the event as a whole. The implications of this phenomenon are huge: when we are emotionally detached from an event, we are less likely to act to stop it or change our behaviour to help the community. As we look at these enormous numbers, we feel like we can’t do anything to really change them and this leads us to inactivity, as we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the eventv.

George Floyd: one life makes the difference

So far, the issue that has most affected public opinion since the start of the pandemic has been the problem of racism, brought forward to the general population by the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that arose in May. After what had already been almost four months of quarantines, the protests cannot be fully understood without considering the spreading of psychic numbing in the population.

It surely would be diminutive to say that the psychological condition created by the pandemic was the only reason that led to the immense magnitude of the protests; however, we cannot ignore it as a factor that affected the disposition of citizens worldwide. Many other aspects come into place when discussing the outbreak of the antiracist protests and the reason why they were so forcefully felt by so many communities. However, if we consider previous protests born from similar episodes of racism, none was ever even close to the scale of the ones in May and we should ask ourselves what caused this particular time to be the right one for such an event. It is inevitable to think that there could be a connection between the emotional scenario created by the pandemic and the magnitude of the protests, and this point should be investigated in the context of psychic numbing, as it creates a peculiar psychological condition that intimately relates people to issues.

The protests suddenly swept away the alienating monotony of months of increasing deaths and infection numbers, to which we were already becoming more and more detached from, as people could suddenly emotionally relate to a problem. George Floyd’s death was immediately understandable and shocking to different communities.

The protests reached their global level as people started to focus their attention from the intangible reality of Covid, with its unimaginable deaths and magnitude, to the very direct images of one man being suffocated to death. As a result, at the peak of the protests, there was a major shift in the way racism was perceived by the population and the emotional connection people felt to it as a problematic: for weeks, it was impossible not to face the reality of the racial issue and it became almost a necessity to bring it forward in any way necessary.

However, we cannot forget that the issue has been present for long before the protests and a process of numbing was slowly happening in that area as well. We were all aware to some extent that our societies never dealt with the problem of racism. If we put to the side single events of police brutality, that most often would lead to local protests in the affected areas, the bigger immigration system problem, that leads to the death of thousands of people, the separation of families and forces specialised workers to be exploited in conditions of what can be considered modern slaveryvi, has not affected us with the same emotional load as Floyd’s death. Again, this can be partially explained with the phenomenon of psychic numbing: as we are unable to bear the emotional load of the loss of so many lives, we are becoming numb to the problem as a whole.

There is now more than ever the need to fight against racism and the protests brought forward this necessity with incredible strength. However, we need to be aware of psychic numbing as a process that can easily make people detached from a problem, leading to an ultimate loss of interest in the overall issue, as we are witnessing with the pandemic. Loss of interest causes inactivity and apathy and that’s what we need to beware of if we want to solve issues in the long-term, rather than live them and then forget them in the short-term.

The need for long-term solutions

In a time where we are so globally connected and affected by international issues, we need to be aware of how we psychologically deal with being exposed to such an amount of potentially traumatising information. The media coverage that we see and receive today is incredibly thorough and social media allow us to quickly learn about global struggles and issues. This necessarily exposes us to a greater number of problems, which all require a quantitative description, as this is how information is usually presented to us today: climate change, wars, protests, now the pandemic are all presented to us as numbers. However, as it has been discussed, it is easy for us to grow numb to information presented in numbers, especially when they become too big for us to really understand. This puts us in a very unusual position: we are constantly aware of issues but we are also unable to connect with them; therefore, we feel like we cannot act on them. Left in a sort of limbo, we easily end up staying in this position of inactivity. Therefore, being aware of the process of psychic numbing is vital to understand the way we, as a community, respond to events.

The pandemic has shown how easy it is for us to get detached from reality, as it creates a situation we can hardly relate to. When there is such a traumatic event looming in the background, to which such few people can emotionally connect with anymore, any problematic that sparks empathy will be felt more strongly, almost more intimately. But the dangerous flip side is that problematics that are important and need to be tackled on an international scale in the long-term can easily die off. The real risk is that, just as we are growing numb to the pandemic, we can grow numb to other issues, that we previously felt we could relate to. The relationship between the pandemic and the protests lead by the BLM is a clear example of how dangerous numbing can be, as attention can easily shift from an issue to the other if the urgency and importance of a problem are not communicated in the right way to the population. It’s not enough anymore to support the riots and participate in them: there needs to be a political agenda that can be taken forward from there. The environmental crisis cannot be seen in the heart-warming terms of the environment healing when people are segregated in their houses: there needs to be real change in the system.

Change can start from the way information itself is presented. As much as it is vital to give people a clear and truthful representation of a situation with clear and reliable numbers, there is also the need to present information in a way that will allow people to connect to it. A simple quantitative description is often alienating and does not create that emotional attachment needed to stimulate action. At the basis of any long-standing protest, there is an emotion, a feeling that makes people ready to fight for a cause and take action to change a situation. To avoid psychic numbing, we need to create an alternative way of informing people, to then create long-term movements that can effectively change the world.

Maria Chiara Mantova

ii Raul Slovic, “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide (Judgment and Decision Making, 2007)

iii Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (2000)

iv Slovic, P., Zionts, D., Woods, A. K., Goodman, R., & Jinks, D, Psychic numbing and mass atrocity (The behavioral foundations of public policy, 2013)

v Tiffanie Wen, What makes people stop caring? (BBC Future, 2020)

vi Michael Sippitt, James Sinclair, Migration and modern slavery (Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 2017)


Image: Vasanth Rajkumar, published under CC BY-SA 4.0