Roger Chui first learned about the mass shooting that killed 12 people in a packed bar Wednesday night in Thousand Oaks, Calif., when he woke up the morning after and turned on his phone.
“And I was like ‘Oh, that seems really soon after Pittsburgh and Louisville,’ ” says the software developer in Lexington, Ky. “I thought we’d get more of a break.”
Chui feels like these kinds of shootings happen in the U.S. so often now that when he hears about them all he can think about is, “Oh well, it happened again I guess.”
He’s not alone.
Ginger Ellenbecker, a high school biology teacher in Lawrence, Kan., has similar feelings.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘Another one. Here’s another one. This is terrible!’ But I’m not incredibly surprised,” she says.
Both Ellenbecker and Chui say they feel bad about their immediate reactions, but science suggests that their feelings are quite normal.
It’s a natural response called compassion fatigue, says Charles Figley, a psychologist and director of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute.
Another reason why people might find themselves feeling desensitized in the face of the latest tragedy is something called psychic numbing, which happens when the emotional response to a tragedy doesn’t increase when the number of victims does.
“The statistics of large-scale killing don’t convey emotion,” says to University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, a leading researcher of psychic numbing. He and his colleagues demonstrated the phenomena in a recent study that found people are much more willing to donate aid to an identified individual than to an unidentified group of people.
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