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InPsych 2011 | Vol 33

April | Issue 2

Psychology in current issues

Genocide: Is it that the more who die, the less we care?

Over the past 100 years, from Armenia in 1915 to Darfur today, genocides have taken place in many countries, with horrendous death tolls, and devastating consequences for the survivors. Closer to home, Australia's ‘stolen generations', where between 1900-1970 up to 25,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly separated from their families (Bringing Them Home report, 1996), have been described as attempted genocide because it was believed (and intended) that Aboriginal people would die out.

Inaction in response to genocide stands as one of the major failures of humanity in recent history. And so we wonder, why? Is it that the more who die, the less we care?

Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research and Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, posed this very question in the opening keynote presentation at last year's International Congress of Applied Psychology (ICAP 2010) in Melbourne. Slovic, well known for over 50 years of research into decision making and risk perceptions, has tackled the problem of genocide "because it is a heinous practice, carried out by known human antagonists, that could in principle be stopped if only people cared to stop it" (Slovic, 2007, p.95).

Bystander apathy in genocide

Paul Slovic adds to the growing body of interdisciplinary work on genocide by looking beyond the psychology of perpetrators to explore the behaviour of bystanders. What is it about human psychology that we show apparent indifference to the plight of people who are victims of mass murder and genocide, even though we can show great compassion for individual victims who come to our attention? Slovic is seeking to understand the dehumanisation processes involved in large-scale bystander effects, and to identify ways to overcome our indifference, in the hope of preventing and better responding to genocide.

There is no single explanation for the public's numb indifference to mass killings. Slovic argues "it is not because we are insensitive to the suffering of our fellow human beings - witness the extraordinary efforts we expend to rescue someone in distress. It is not because we only care about identifiable victims, of similar skin colour, who live near us: witness the outpouring of aid to victims of the December 2004 tsunami in South Asia. We cannot simply blame our political leaders."

Instead, Slovic draws on a number of psychological theories that help to explain mass-murder neglect. One key mechanism is affect - the positive and negative feelings that combine with rational deliberation to guide our judgments, decisions and actions. Sheer numbers of victims fail to spark emotion or feeling, and thus fail to motivate action. Numbers represent dry statistics - "human beings with the tears dried off" (Slovic, 2007, p.91). We seem unable to hold the emotions aroused by facts and numbers for nearly as long as those of images, and quickly grow numb. Without affect, information lacks meaning and won't be used in judgment and decision making (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001).

The human brain has two processing systems - experiential processing relies on emotions and instincts, while analytic processing manages scientific information. Although analysis is certainly important in decision making, reliance on affect and emotion is generally a quicker, easier and more efficient way to make decisions. Evidence shows that the experiential processing system is the stronger motivator for action.

Attention is the next contributor. Just as feelings are necessary for motivating helping, attention is necessary for feelings. Research shows that attention magnifies emotional responses to stimuli that are already emotionally charged (Fenske & Raymond, 2006). Other research shows that attention is greater for individuals, losing focus and intensity when targeted at groups of people (Susskind, et al., 1999).

Another mechanism is that of psychophysical numbing. People's cognitive and perceptual systems are sensitised to small changes in their environment, but we are less able to detect and respond to changes as the size of the stimulus increases. So too, it seems, with the value of human life. "Psychologically", says Slovic, "the importance of saving one life is diminished against the background of a larger threat - we will likely not ‘feel' much different, nor value the difference, between saving 87 lives and saving 88, if these prospects are presented to us separately" (Slovic, 2007, p.89). As Mother Teresa purportedly said, "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will".

A number of social psychology studies have tested these theories, and found that people's preparedness to fund humanitarian life-saving efforts is greater when a larger proportion of the at-risk population can be saved. For example, people would be more prepared to send aid to save 1,500 people in a refugee camp of 11,000 people than they would be to send fresh water to save the same number of people in a refugee camp of 250,000 people (Fetherstonhaugh et al., 1997). The proportion of lives saved can carry more weight in people's decision making than the number saved.

What is genocide?

The term ‘genocide' did not exist before 1944. It was created to describe the Nazi policies of systematic murder. In 1948 the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention established genocide as an international crime, which signatory nations "undertake to prevent and punish". It defines genocide as:

... any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

From apathy to action

So are we destined to stand mute and do nothing as genocides rage on for another century? Paul Slovic argues that as we better understand ourselves, we are more able to overcome our psychological deficiencies and be galvanised into the necessary action that can prevent these atrocities from happening. How information about atrocities is communicated is critical to grabbing our attention and evoking the feelings that will precipitate action. Information must convey feeling to be meaningful, for example:

  • Use images - imagery is key to conveying affect and meaning, though some images are more powerful than others.
  • Make statistics more vivid by using narratives - writers and artists have long recognised the power of narrative to bring feelings and meaning to tragedy.
  • Focus on individuals, personalise stories - the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, is best at eliciting compassion.
  • Help victims communicate with the outside world - bring people into communities and homes to tell their stories.

Bystander actions to halt violence

Bystanders have great potential to influence events and inhibit progression along the continuum of destruction, whether citizen groups, NGOs, governments or the UN. Substantial evidence shows that how individuals behave (passively, or taking action) can influence others to help or not help someone in distress (e.g., Latane & Darley, 1970). Similarly, active opposition to genocide by bystanders can achieve many things. It can: reawaken perpetrators‘ moral values and make them reconsider their violent actions; prevent the dehumanisation and exclusion of victims from the moral universe; cause concern about retaliation or punishment from the international community; and make harm-doing costly to the perpetrating country (Staub, 2001). Usually perpetrators do not want the world to know about their violence and do not want other countries involved. The mere presence of foreign witnesses, like peace brigade volunteers, community development workers and journalists, can sometimes stop violence.

Beyond a critical point in the continuum of violence, however, the influence and power of nations and international bodies is required. Nations have a responsibility to act when the crime of genocide is being committed. In the early stages, this can include helping with mediation, negotiations and providing economic and other types of assistance. Importantly, nations also need to communicate their resolve not to tolerate further violence, specifying actions they would take if it continues. As violence escalates, this might extend to measures like withholding aid, sanctions (e.g., freezing assets in foreign banks) and boycotts. When violence is already at a high level, using international force might be the only response.

Paul Slovic argues persuasively that psychology could do more to facilitate people's engagement with international law. The UN's mandate permits intervening in the internal politics of any country only if the crime of genocide is being committed, and often this mandate is not followed. We need a moral vision about shared responsibility for the protection of human rights, standards and institutions that provide early warning of escalating violence, and laws that compel appropriate action when information about genocide becomes known.

Central to the discussion here is the social responsibility of psychologists - what role can psychological understandings play in preventing and responding to genocide? Paul Slovic insists that anyone wanting to work on humanitarian causes needs to get a good background in basic psychological principles - cognition, attention, memory, judgment and decision making. Then you have to cut across disciplines and educate yourself about the social, political and legal aspects of issues like war and human rights. The legal and institutional aspects of these challenges are daunting. You have to connect with the people who can actually change the world.


Slovic, P. (2007). "If I look at the mass I will never act": Psychic numbing and genocide. Judgment and Decision Making, 2, 79-95.

Fenske, M.J., & Raymond, J.E. (2006). Affective influences of selective attention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 312-316.

Fetherstonhaugh, D., Slovic, P., Johnson, S.M., & Friedrich, J. (1997). Insensitivity to the value of human life: A study of psychophysical numbing. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14, 283-300.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1996). Bringing them home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Canberra: Author.

Latane, B., & Darley, J. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn't he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Loewenstein, G., Weber, E.U., Hsee, C.K., & Welch, E.S. (2001). Risk as feelings. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 267-286.

Staub, E. (2001). Genocide and mass killing: their roots and prevention. In Christie, D. J., Wagner, R. V., & Winter, D. A. (Eds.), Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology for the 21st Century. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Susskind, J., Maurer, K., Thakkar, V., Hamilton, D.L., & Sherman, J.W. (1999). Perceiving individuals and groups: Expectancies, dispositional inferences, and causal attributions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 181-191.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on April 2011. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.