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Why Big Numbers Can Cause Big Problems

Trent Horn

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!

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