The unimaginable tale of genocide in Darfur continues to unfold in the news, of people burned, mutilated and otherwise slaughtered. But as devastating as those news reports are, death toll estimates regularly cited by the press are frequently underestimated, according to a new study, titled “Death in Darfur,” which will appear in the Sept. 15 issue of the journal Science.
The death toll in Darfur is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands rather than the tens of thousands of people that large news organizations continue to report, according to a study by John Hagan, John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Law at Northwestern, and Alberto Palloni, H. Edwin Young Professor of International Studies at the University of Wisconsin.
[…] To address the issues in estimating the death toll, Hagan and Palloni built an estimate from the best of the primary surveys from West Darfur. They then extrapolated their estimate across the three states of Darfur for 31 months, resulting in a total estimate that at least 200,000 have died, and probably more.
Eminent decision psychologist Paul Slovic has been campaigning on Darfur for some time. Some of his commentary and papers are collected here including a great paper that he gave at the Society for Judgement and Decision Making conference in 2005 on why people seem to care more about small numbers of needy victims than the mass victims of genocide. The paper is entitled “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act”: Psychic Numbing and Genocide (pdf file). Here’s the abstract:
Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are “one of many” in a much greater problem. Why does this occur? The answer to this question will help us answer a related question that is the topic of this paper: Why, over the past century, have good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide? Every episode of mass murder is unique and raises unique obstacles to intervention. But the repetitiveness of such atrocities, ignored by powerful people and nations, and by the general public, calls for explanations that may reflect some fundamental deficiency in our humanity—a deficiency that, once identified, might possibly be overcome.
One fundamental mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes of mass-murder neglect involves the capacity to experience affect, the positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. 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. Recognizing that we cannot rely only upon our moral feelings to motivate proper action against genocide, we must look to moral argument and international law. The 1948 Genocide Convention was supposed to meet this need, but it has not been effec-tive. It is time to examine this failure in light of the psychological deficiencies described here and design legal and institutional mechanisms that will enforce proper response to genocide and other forms of mass murder.