Keynote Speaker: Paul Slovic, PhD

Monday, October 21, 2019

8:45 AM - 9:45 AM

The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Confronting the Deadly Arithmetic of Compassion

To help society to prevent or mitigate catastrophic losses, immense effort and technological sophistication are employed to assess and communicate the size and scope of potential or actual damages. This assumes that people can understand the resulting numbers and act on them appropriately. However, recent research casts doubt on this assumption. Large numbers have been found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). We respond strongly to aid a single individual in need, but often ignore mass tragedies such as genocide or fail to take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses from natural disasters.  As the numbers get larger we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action. In some cases the numbers convey a false sense of inefficacy, discouraging us from taking valuable actions we are capable of doing.  Biases in decision making compound these problems, leading to actions that contradict our stated values toward protecting lives. Failure to understand how our minds become insensitive to great losses of human life and failure to act on this knowledge increases the likelihood that we will not take appropriate actions to reduce the risks from catastrophic events associated with violence, poverty, disease, and natural disasters.


Paul Slovic is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a founder and President of Decision Research. He holds a B.A. from Stanford University (1959) and an M.A (1962) and Ph.D. (1964) from the University of Michigan. He studies human judgment, decision making, and the psychology of risk. With colleagues worldwide, he has developed methods to describe risk perceptions and measure their impacts on individuals and society. His most recent work examines "psychic numbing" and the failure to respond to mass human tragedies. He is a past President of the Society for Risk Analysis and in 1991 received its Distinguished Contribution Award. In 1993 he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. In 1995 he received the Outstanding Contribution to Science Award from the Oregon Academy of Science. He has received honorary doctorates from the Stockholm School of Economics (1996) and the University of East Anglia (2005). He was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016.