Mental Health

Psychic Numbing: Coping with Russian Mass Murder in Bucha

By now we’ve all seen, heard about, and read about the horrific mass murders that the Russians undertook in Bucha. There is no need for Ye Olde Blogge to weigh in with invective about how appalling and disgusting the atrocities were. Too many others have documented it all too well and it is way to widely reported in the legacy media, social media, professional alternative media, and on blogs and other amateur reporting platforms for it to be worthwhile adding my two cents that will be about the same as everyone else’s. The contribution that this blog can make is applying the lessons from the work of Paul Slovic and Robert Lifton on psychic numbing to those human rights abuses.

Even if you don’t realize it, you are familiar with the phenomenon of psychic numbing. Hell, even Stalin was familiar with it when he uttered his infamous line, no doubt inspired by his induced genocidal famine in Ukraine, the Holodomor, One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

Psychic Numbing

The Basics

This is the way it works-1: When confronted with large-scale suffering, we tune out. When witnessing the suffering of one, our heart-strings are tugged, as the number of suffering increases, we just completely unravel our hearts with all that tugging.

This is the way it works-2: Slovic’s basic study looked at the amount of money that people were willing to donate to support impoverished and suffering children under three conditions: (1) a five year-old girl, (2) a nine year-old boy, and (3) both of the children together. Donations were lowest from those who were presented with both children. What? Why?

When we see one person suffering, our empathy is engaged, but when we see two people suffering, we do not experience twice the empathy. In fact, we may experience less empathy. As Stalin observed, a million people suffering and dying just becomes a morass of immorality that we can’t do anything about. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case, but obviously the relationship between one person suffering and ten people suffering is not linear, meaning that our concern for ten is not ten times our concern for one. And, it certainly isn’t exponential. We are not super more concerned when it is a million people suffering.

In fact, it is just the opposite. Once the number of people suffering reaches two, our level of concern levels off, and it never really climbs after that. If that number gets to be large, our level of concern begins to diminish in something affectionately dubbed, compassion collapse.

A Flattened Curve

The way it works-3: We might could make a donation that could help one child, but we aren’t about to double that donation to help two children. And, we sure as shit aren’t going to multiply it by a million to help the starving masses. It is not only beyond or ken, it is beyond our means.

This finding is inline with the behavioral economics finding that when we encounter a problem to solve, we make an unconscious calculation on how difficult it will be for us. If it is too easy, we might not try, or we might try and give up once we become bored. If it is too hard, we probably won’t try or give up easily. We only really apply ourselves when we feel that there is a chance of solving the puzzle. Applied to the contribution problem, it is as if we think that as an individual, I can give enough money to help one person, but more than that starts to sound impossible.

Lifton defines psychic numbing as the response people have to death anxiety in which they emotionally withdraw in order to manage their anxiety. It is a type of denial. It is a way of protecting ourselves from being overwhelmed by tragedy that we cannot do anything about.

Psychic Numbing, Applied

The Bucha Massacre

Applying this idea to the senseless slaughter of civilians in Bucha, you might think that we’d be overwhelmed by the news and give in to psychic numbing. However, the massacre in Bucha is different. We saw pictures of individuals. They were presented as individuals in the media. They were called fathers, husbands, mothers, wives, children. We identified with them. In addition, it was not presented as three hundred killed in Bucha, but as an outrage because they were systematically taken from their homes during the retreat, some of them bound, and shot excecution-style in the back of the head. Everyone of us who scrolled past those stories on our social media feeds, read the headlines, or saw the videos felt the same sense of gross unfairness. We could see ourselves in those people. That could’ve been us.

However, as time passes and the initial outrage and shock wears off, we will begin to think of it more and more as three hundred people killed. They will become just another number in the endless march of the dead, displaced, and destroyed. It will, then, contribute to the psychic numbing that we are already feeling about the war, the one million real live dead Americans from #COVID19 or the impossibly high gas prices or the inflation or fear of a world without access to safe and legal reproductive health options.

Mounting Stressors

As the problems that the US faces mount ever higher — the arbitrary and unnecessary problems that are being created by the GQP as they obstruct the Biden administration’s effective solutions to all of our problems — we feel ourselves being increasingly overwhelmed by vague fears of racism, sexism, immigrants, and socialism. The vaguer the threat, the more likely you are to feel that you can do nothing about it. The more helpless you feel in the face of it. The more helpless you feel, the more likely you are to feel overwhelmed.

To protect yourself from that sense of being drowned in difficulties and distress, you’ll begin to feel numb. It doesn’t help that the media portrays the upcoming elections as a foregone conclusion of a GQP landslide because it doesn’t even seem like voting could help us.

It is the reason so many people shrug and say they’re done with #COVID19, for example. It may be the reason many people won’t vote in the midterms. It may be the reason that people aren’t donating as much money to Ukrainians, survivors of wildfires, floods, blizzards, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events.

It can also be the reason some people have such extreme and visceral reactions to seeing others wearing masks or not wearing masks or protesting police violence or abortion or the outrageous support that Tucker Carlson is offering Putin’s crimes against humanity machine.

Recovering from Psychic Numbing

Like snails and turtles, when we feel threatened, we pull within our protective shells and hope that the trouble passes us by. In this sense, it can be helpful. We really cannot do a very good job responding if we’re overwhelmed. Checking out while we get our cognitive, emotional, and physical resources organized will help us do a much better job of coping when we’re ready to.

When you’re operating from a place of fear and confusion, you literally cannot think. Your prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that thinks rationally — is chemically detached and less able to direct your actions. If you realize that you’re overwhelmed and going psychically numb, here’s what you do:

  • PRUNE: Take stock of the issues that are stressing you out. Do you really need to be engaged with all of them? Cut back on the ones that you don’t absolutely have to do something about right now.
  • HIT THE BRAKES: You don’t have to go go go all of the time. You can watch some TV or a movie, read a good book, go for a walk, go camping. The world and all of its problems will still be there when you get back.
  • FOCUS: Our lives are filled with pleasures, albeit most of them small. Enjoy the beauty of the world around you. When you appreciate the beauty of the world, you live in a more beautiful world. When you eat, focus on each bite of food. When you’re walking the dogs, focus on how much they love their walks and their smells. Watch the sunset. Look at how amazing an insect is. Marvel at a bird in flight. Let your mind appreciate the symmetry of a leaf.
  • GO CAMPING: Rest. Enjoy the great outdoors. Nothing restores like some time in nature. You don’t have to sleep in a tent on the ground, but get out and relax in as natural a setting as you can tolerate.
  • KINDNESS: Do something for someone else. I’m not talking donate money. Open the door for someone. Smile at someone looking gloom. Do some random act of kindness. Nothing cuts through stress like really helping someone in need. You know, like leaving a sign of life on a blog post by commenting, liking or rating it, sharing it on social media, or following the blog.

Image Attribution

Stop and Smell the Roses” by Puzzler4879 is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

13 replies »

  1. I’ve been returning to this somewhat often sinceI first read it, and I really appreciate it.

    There is no way to predict how voters will vote when it’s time. That’s a lot of what ticks me off about news media discussing such things all the time. The state of the US is so far beyond the “horse race” theory of politics most US media put upon us, but it is true that voters somehow tend to forget all but what they heard on the radio on the way to the polls. I hate that. (I don’t hate them. But that ticks me off, too.)

    Aanyywaayyy… being a lunch lady these days is so helpful to my mental health! Also, thank you again for all you do here, and for this piece which continues to be timely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Ali!

      I’m glad to be of service. It is what gets me up in the mornings.

      The US electorate really ticks me off, too. That is another problem that I’ll lay at the feet of the two-party system: it makes people lazy. They don’t have to understand anything about anything, they just have to vote for their party… if they vote at all. Which they don’t because with only two parties, it helps reinforce the idea that their votes don’t matter.

      Systemic racism also makes white people lazy until it energizes them. The assumption that the racial order of things (whether you are consciously aware of the racism or not) means you don’t have to do anything except coast along in the system. Unfortunately, stimulating that racial animus that way too many of us carry, is too easy and nets too many white voters every damn time. Talk about ticking me off.

      It’s still a long time before November, so we’ve got to take care of ourselves now. We’ll need to be working overtime in the summer and fall to register voters and get them to the polls.

      Your kind words are deeply appreciated. I’m glad to be of service.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is reasonable, considering how psychic numbing works, that the outrage about Russia’s crimes in Ukraine will fade, most sadly as more of the same horror is found and reported in more formerly occupied towns. As that happens, for many people the price of gas in Iowa or Ohio, or the price of bread (more on that in a link below) in Chicago, or Egypt, or Yemen, or the price of fertilizer in Brazil or North Dakota will feel as the more important problem and throwing Ukraine under the bus just to get the good flowing again will look like a solution, or, alternatively, going full shooting intervention to punish the Russians and also open the supply lines to the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Howdy Bob!

      That all too human tendency to allow intense emotional reactions to subside and mellow makes it all the more important for the Democrats to control the narrative heading into the midterms. It also tells us the reasons that the Republicans concentrate on outrageous threatening yet vague claims in the run up to elections only to never mention them again until the next election.

      As Poppy Bush found out, if your emotional response to a war peaks to early in the cycle, its effect on the election is greatly diminished. War in Ukraine, outrage over police brutality, voter suppression and nullification, the abortion fight all may peak and recede before they have any real effect on the election turnout. By voting against aid to Ukraine and complaining about how slowly Biden is rolling aid out and voting against temporarily suspending the gas tax and complaining that Biden has allowed the price of gas to rise, Republicans are betting that the public won’t make the connection and only react emotionally to suffering of Ukraine and rising prices.

      We’ll see if it works. I feel like I can make no predictions given the public’s vulnerability to being swayed by such duplicitous and ingenuous arguments and behaviors.


      Liked by 2 people

      • Another problem with our electorate (and probably others) is the tendency to see a global problem (like the price of oil or wheat) as only our problem and looking for somebody here (the other party) to blame. There is so much that can happen between now and the election that any prediction is almost fool hardy.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Howdy Bob!

          It is funny how universal human blinders are. Unless adequately prodded and trained, we don’t instinctively consider the situations of others or see the bigger picture. Of course, it doesn’t help that partisan news media — my latest post, by the way — is actively filtering information to create the problems that they think will motivate their electorate.


          Liked by 2 people

          • I wonder if people educated in other countries have as much trouble finding other countries mentioned in the news on a map of the world as Americans do.

            And those blinders are ripe for any propaganda manipulation, and much used so.

            Liked by 2 people

            • Howdy Bob!

              When I lived in Korea and would show students of all ages Korea on a world map, they were always amazed at how small it was.

              All of my high school students have had trouble finding continents and oceans on the globe. None of them know even the European countries by sight.

              I’ve always been properly amazed by such things, but everyone has to learn them somewhere. Still, I remember learning continents and oceans in middle school and many of the countries in high school. It just isn’t as big a part of the curriculum as it once was.

              My guess is, yest, most people have trouble with world geography, but I may be wrong. The national curriculums of various countries might include more precise location of countries and such. I don’t know, but all of the curriculums I’ve taught haven’t explicitly included it.


              Liked by 1 person

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