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News Release 08-080

Why Nations Fail to Act

Loss of feeling after first victim can allow atrocities to occur

Photo of African refugees.

Logical argument and vivid news media images can motivate people to act to relieve suffering.

May 15, 2008

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

The international community should take formal steps to justify inaction when conditions of genocide exist anywhere in the world.

So says Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor, who wants a formal process that requires nations to carefully weigh and publicly justify action or inaction in cases of intentional mass murder. "If they were required to deliberate, I think it would be much more difficult for nations not to take action," he says. "This is something nations aren't required to do and don't really do now."

Slovic, who is also the president and founder of Decision Research Inc., a think tank for risk assessment in Eugene, Ore., makes the recommendation May 18 at a seminar on the prevention of genocide in Auschwitz, Poland hosted by the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.

The formal steps proposed by Slovic result from his National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research on psychic numbing, which attempts to understand why people, who emotionally care for and respond to one person in need, tend to become emotionally numb to many people in need.

"Slovic uses scientific methods to help us understand the psychological underpinnings for the consistent failure of the world community to respond to genocides," says NSF Program Director for Decision, Risk and Management Sciences Bob O'Connor. "More importantly, his research suggests concrete steps that will help to change this tragic reality."

Slovic cites a 1948 United Nations convention that calls for the prevention of genocide as evidence of psychic numbing. The convention has rarely been invoked despite more than 135 signatories and a large number of mass murders since the end of World War II. Slovic urges a review of the convention.

The problem, according to Slovic, is that moral intuition, guided by feelings and emotions, is not sufficient to motivate action when genocide is happening. Both moral intuition and moral reasoning, that is, logical argument and calculation, are needed to stimulate action.

"Our basic way of responding through moral intuition is a problem because it breaks down in the face of large scale atrocities," says Slovic. "Our compassion, our empathy, our feeling about what we should do gives us a rush of immediate concern, but it doesn't sustain us when large numbers of people are involved."

The solution is to engage moral reasoning, a slower and more logical way of thinking about problems that challenge principles of right conduct, along with moral intuition.

For example, he argues that the U.S. government doesn't leave it to the moral intuition of citizens to determine how much money they should pay in taxes for Social Security. Instead, moral reasoning leads to laws that require individuals to pay specific amounts for this program.

"Moral reasoning says all human lives are equally valuable," says Slovic. "Given that, if a large number of lives are at risk, they should be proportionally more valuable than a single life. But if left to moral intuition, we would feel a certain amount of concern for the large number of lives at risk, but that feeling would not necessarily be enough to lead us to action."

A 2005 Israeli research study verifies his point that moral intuition, in the absence of moral reasoning, can lead to bad decisions. In the study, participants were shown photos of children in need. One photo showed eight children who needed a total of $300,000 in life-saving medical care. A second photo showed only one child who could be helped with $300,000. Participants were most willing to donate for one child's medical care, but the level of giving declined dramatically when donating to help the entire group.

Still, Slovic recognizes that in some instances, people act to help large numbers of people as was the case in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the north-central Gulf Coast of the United States and in 2004, when devastating tsunamis slammed into 11 countries in South Asia.

"It was easier for people to have empathy in those cases," he says. "People could see vivid, descriptive images in the news and feel what it might be like if they themselves were in a similar circumstance."

But for cases of genocide, descriptive news media coverage doesn't always occur or prompt people and governments to intervene. The Tyndall Report, which monitors American television coverage, shows that NBC news allotted a total of five minutes to the Darfur genocide on its nightly newscasts in 2004; CBS had only three minutes, about one minute of coverage for every 100,000 deaths.

Slovic insists that we need to engage both moral intuition and moral reasoning to take effective action to stop genocides.

"We need deliberative thinking to go along with our gut feelings," he says. "Our gut feelings will give us the moral intuition that genocide is wrong, but moral reasoning will cause us to lay out reasons to act."

Scholars as well as government officials representing many nations will attend the seminar in Auschwitz.


Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF, (703) 292-8485, email:
Jim Barlow, University of Oregon, (541) 346-3481, email:

Program Contacts
Robert E. O'Connor, NSF, (703) 292-7263, email:

Principal Investigators
Paul Slovic, University of Oregon, (541) 485-2400, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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