As you’re reading this, there are more than 40 violent conflicts unfolding around the world.
However, many conflicts are left in the dark, according to IRIN, a not-for-profit organization that tracks ongoing conflicts and reports from the front lines.
Yemen, for example, has been at war for years, and the numbers have been thrown at us repeatedly: 14 million are at risk of starving to death. Fourteen million are going without proper food or water, some of whom are cooking leaves to get by.
It wasn’t until Jamal Khashoggi — the Saudi journalist who worked for the Washington Post — was killed on Oct. 2 in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey that the world started to pay attention.
“It’s just really interesting that the first images that we get — that actually tried to start to move things — of starving children in Yemen is just after the murder of Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist in the consulate in Turkey,” said Virgil Hawkins, associate professor at Osaka University.
“These two events coincide, and now suddenly, we get these front-page pictures of starving children in Yemen.”
This delayed reaction is not unique — and it may have more to do with human psychology than we realize.
According to Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who has devoted his research career to this topic, our reaction to such conflicts has a lot to do with how we empathize.
When a problem is so large, we don’t identify with it, he explains.
Slovic calls it the “singularity effect.” His research finds that as the number of deaths in a conflict increases, fewer people pay attention.
“The difference between no lives at risk and one is huge,” Slovic said.
“But if I said that there were 87 people at risk… and then you realize it’s 88, you don’t feel any different about 88 than 87.”
He calls this a sort of psychic numbing — more suffering means less empathy.
Through his research, Slovic has found that the bigger the problem is, the less people are willing to help. When he performed an experiment in which he asked the public to donate money to a helpless, starving child, Slovic found that people donated way more money to a single child than they did when they were told the child was one of millions starving.
Slovic calls it a false sense of efficacy — the incorrect assumption that because the situation is so big and bad, one person’s actions will not change anything.
Slovic also argues that from a political standpoint, this reaction comes down to being able to defend a decision. For example, if a Canadian dies in a conflict while trying to provide aid, inaction would be harder to defend and explain to the Canadian public than if the conflict posed no direct risk to Canadians.
There are other, more obvious reasons why we pay attention to certain conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, where there has been western military intervention. In other countries, like South Sudan or the Central African Republic, there is money flowing in from western governments in the form of aid but not nearly as much awareness among the general population.
Outside of a country being directly involved in a conflict, action — or inaction — also comes down to how easily the conflict can be understood. If a conflict doesn’t have a clear good versus evil narrative, people have a hard time following, Hawkins argues.
Hawkins, who is the author of the book Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence Is Ignored, explains that having a conflict presented in a simplistic way is important. If it’s too complicated with too many players, people don’t engage, he says.
“If we compare it to a football match, you’ve got two teams and they’ve got different coloured jerseys. If there’s one ball and two goalposts then we can get the picture,” Hawkins said.
“But once we’ve got five or six different rebel groups that have splintered off, and you’re not sure where the ball (is)… then we can lose interest, just as we would if it were a football match,” he added.
Finally, Hawkins argues that sensationalism plays a role, too. It’s never been easier to find information — and the world is more connected than it has ever been.
That’s why Janice Stein, founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, finds it a bit ironic that major conflicts fall through the cracks.
“People have limited spans of attention. Newspapers have limited spans of attention,” Stein said.
“A story of an ongoing, debilitating, grinding war only gets so much airtime in a Twitter universe and a social media universe. Everybody knows about the war in Syria — that’s not the problem — but they’re only willing to hear so much of it before they change the channel.”
However, Stein says those who are on the ground losing family members, starving or getting bombed don’t forget the conflict.
And that’s why empathy is important, Slovic argues.
“Try to imagine the individuals’ lives beneath the surface of those statistics or pay attention to stories that are coming out that illustrate what the people who are being harmed are experiencing,” he said.