Faceless Tragedies: What Your Response to Japan Says About Human Behavior

Like most Americans, I’ve been watching the horrific images out of Japan and trying to put myself in the shoes of the people I see on the screen. I feel helpless, stunned, and ready to do something, but what? I can donate money, which I’ve done, and that makes me feel somewhat better. But then my mind quickly goes to other human tragedies in New Orleans, Indonesia, Haiti, Libya, Congo, Rwanda and it feels so overwhelming I just shut it down. And move on to my daily life. Looks like I’m in the majority.

I recently watched the documentary Reporter on HBO about the Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who almost single-handedly brought attention to the atrocities in Congo by relentless coverage of it. He talks of his challenge to overcome “psychic numbing” where humans very quickly get to a stage of shut down when a situation is too widespread or dire. He cites studies that show people give the most money when they hear of one particular person in need, and that the donations drop off with even 2-3 people profiled. Forget about statistics citing thousands or millions — we can’t process it. Kristof’s goal was to capture individual stories, and through the telling of personal atrocities, to humanize the tragedy and galvanize action. (PBS interviewed the director of the film, and you can hear about it here.)

The human condition of psychic numbing is good to know about ourselves. We can identify it, and fight it when there’s something we do care deeply about.

I also see a valuable lesson here about leadership. As leaders, it’s often our job to draw attention to a situation — and hold it — even when people would rather look the other way. Kristof did it through making the situation personal and unable to ignore. He used stories, repetition, and skillful framing.

Leaders have to make people care. And keep trying until they get through.

At times, the leader’s passionate voice is the only thing that can do it.

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About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, Forbes.com blogger, Entrepreneur.com contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

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