Why Big Numbers Can Cause Big Problems

January 24, 2014 | 6 comments

Tomorrow tens of thousands of pro-life advocates will gather in San Francisco for the West Coast Walk for Life. As I read about this demonstration and the similar March for Life in Washington D.C. there's one figure that sticks out to me and gives me pause. Lots of people have tried to underscore the tragedy of abortion by noting that over 55 million unborn children have been killed since the 1973 Roe v Wade decision.

I'm not sure that's a wise thing to do.

Big Numbers = Bigger Apathy

Telling people 55 million children have been aborted in our country since Roe v Wade is true, but it might not be a good strategy to get people to care about stopping that killing. While researching American apathy to genocide in other countries, Paul Slovic found that we are less likely to help people as the number of people who need our help increases.  His article, whose title is derived from what Mother Theresa once said, is called, “If I look at the mass, I will never act.”  Slovic writes,

I shall draw from psychological research to show how the statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The reported numbers of deaths represent dry statistics, “human beings with the tears dried off,” that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.

People simply can’t comprehend the large numbers involved in genocide reports, especially when there are over a million victims (can you see a “million” of anything in your mind?). As a result, most people simply choose to do nothing because they think there is nothing meaningful they can do. Only when events involve recognizable individuals in immediate danger do people act. One example was the 2012 case of Karen Klein, a school bus monitor who was verbally abused by students on her bus. The video of her abuse was then put on YouTube and her plight went viral. An online fundraising site that tried to raise money to give Klein a vacation ended up raising $400,000 for her through thousands of small gifts.

People were willing to give to Klein because the suffering was immediate and because one person needed their help. But when you add more people to the problem, the help begins to retreat. For example, Slovic's research found that people gave more money to a fundraising plea about one child in need then to an identical plea about eight children in need. Slovic even found that having to think about TWO children in need, as opposed to one, caused people to give less money.

Concerning genocide, Slovic discovered that saying millions of people were being killed overseas did not motivate Americans to act in a meaningful way. The huge loss of life and our ability to want to help instead caused “compassion fatigue.”  This emotion occurs when we grow weary at trying to stop evil that seems endless. Worse, as we view the evil we psychically numb ourselves to it so that it doesn't cause us to break down into tears. Unfortunately, this numbing also discourages us from making any meaningful efforts to stop the killing.

Nearly all pro-life advocates have engaged in this kind of numbing. After all,  their reaction to seeing bloody pictures of aborted fetuses for the hundredth time is usually not as emotional as their reaction was the first time they saw such pictures. Pro-lifers who use the images frequently sometimes act as if the pictures were like a random landscape image and they proceed go about their work. I know I have done that when using these pictures in activism.

Make One Life Count

So when pro-lifers ask for help because over a million children have been aborted this year or over 55 million children have been aborted since 1973, people sometimes don’t act because the numbers confuse and overwhelm them.

A better strategy would be to focus on the ONE child you can save by talking to your friends and family or by volunteering at a local pregnancy center. You could place a sign in your church with an ultrasound picture of a child whose mother recently visited a pregnancy center with the words, “Please help THIS child to not be aborted.”

Since human life is infinitely and intrinsically valuable, even saving one life  makes our efforts worthwhile.  And, if millions of people each focus on saving one life, then in the end millions of lives will be saved.

The Next Step

If you want practical tips to help you save one life, then I recommend picking up a copy of my new DVD, Making the Case for Life, which teaches pro-lifers how to persuasively defend the lives of unborn children. The DVD also contains over thirty minutes of bonus features including “real-life” examples where I use pro-life apologetics to answer tough critics on university campuses and Catholic Answers Live.

For a limited time you can enter the promo code LIFE at checkout and get a 20% discount.

Click here to get your copy today!

After his conversion to the Catholic Faith, Trent Horn earned a bachelor's degree in history from Arizona State University and a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College.

Trent is a...

Making The Case For Life
No matter how hard you try, talking with your friends and family about abortion too often winds up at one extreme or the other—either tempers and emotions get out of hand or to keep the peace you agree to disagree and move on to another subject. Neither approach serves the pro-life cause, says Trent Horn. In his new DVD, Making the Case for Life, he shows you how to avoid those extremes, presenting a roadmap for talking about abortion that really gets people engaged on the gravest moral question of our age.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Dean Yuhas - Omaha, Nebraska


I found the article very interesting and compelling. I do have one serious concern with the premise though. I honestly do not believe that the Holocaust would have the same impact if it was said only one person had died. The reason the Holocaust has the impact it does is because 6 million people lost their lives because of it. The answer may not be to not ignore either number.

January 25, 2014 at 12:56 pm PST
#2  Mike Wright - Rapid City, South Dakota

What I find amazing is that the Catholic church puts on this huge pro-life face, then turns around and 80-90% of Catholics vote for Democrats!

January 25, 2014 at 8:50 pm PST
#3  William Zukowski - Denver, Colorado

Mike Wright,

Are you saying that since some members of the Catholic Church make bad, anti-Catholic decisions then the Church must be to blame?

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is pro-life to the fullest sense of the phrase. So it’s, of course, anti-abortion (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2270-2275) with no exceptions because it's against directly harming an innocent human life. Pope Francis, the vicar of Christ, is proud to proclaim the Church's official, unchangeable, anti-abortion stance (google: "Pope Francis Pro Life").

'The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.' We will always have a problem with its members not following its teachings, big or small.

January 27, 2014 at 2:57 pm PST
#4  William Zukowski - Denver, Colorado

Is it anti-Catholic to vote democrat? ...

Democratic Congressman, Dan Lipinski, is the Co-Chair of the Pro-Life Caucus. I thought I'd mention it's unfair to equate pro-choice with democrat.

January 27, 2014 at 4:13 pm PST
#5  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Mike, you just made up the numbers "80-90% of Catholics vote democrat." That is not true. Check out: http://www.catholicpulse.com/en/columnists/lockwood/120512.html and you will see, for example, that while Obama won the "Catholic" vote by a 50-48% margin in 2012, the "practicing Catholic vote" went for Romney by more than 7 points.
I find both of those numbers to be more than disappointing. I don't see how any moral person, much less a Catholic person, could have voted for this president who is an evangelist for homosexual unions and the culture of death. But why these numbers without anything to back them up?

January 27, 2014 at 9:50 pm PST
#6  Victor Garcia - Chicago, Illinois

Great articleTrent thank you. This is very good research you point out. As a society we have become apathetic. My comment to mike don't politicize the blog by bringing frivolous numbers about polls, and use it to attack the church. I for one would prefer to focus on the end message. Focus on one person who may need your help, and take it from there.

January 28, 2014 at 12:11 pm PST

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