Finding My Tears For Japan: When 1 Is Worse Than 10,000

by Brian Zikmund-Fisher on March 15, 2011

“Human beings with the tears dried off.”

That’s how Paul Slovic recently described the dry statistics that are supposed to help us understand the scope of human tragedies such as genocide and, more recently, the earthquakes and tsunamis that have devastated Japan.

As Slovic and many others have shown, people are remarkably insensitive are to variations in statistical magnitude. Single victims or small groups who are unique and identifiable evoke strong reactions. (Think, for example, the Chilean miners or “baby Jessica” who was trapped in the well in Texas in 1987.) Statistical victims, even if much more numerous, do not evoke proportionately greater concern. In fact, under some circumstances, they may evoke less concern than a single victim does. Slovic describes this phenomenon as psychic numbing.

To overcome psychic numbing and really attach meaning to the statistics we are hearing about the destruction in Japan, we have to be able to frame the situation in human terms.

This point was poignantly and personally reinforced with me when I read my wife’s blog today. My wife wears many hats, but in this context, the most relevant is that she is a certified practitioner and trainer in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM, for short). She writes the Monday Morning Crisis Quarterback blog about crisis response issues in the news and consults with school districts and other organizations on how best to help people and communities affected by crises.

Today’s post, “Japan – The Kid Version,” tells the story of her conversations with my 5 year old son about one of his Kindergarten classmates, “Taro,” whose family is from Japan. While I encourage you all to read the full post, let me excerpt a few parts here:

On Friday, I explained that there had been a very huge earthquake in Japan. He immediately exclaimed, “Taro comes from Japan!” He was happy about this — he had a personal connection to a grownup thing. That’s a big deal when you’re five. We then talked about tsunamis, which he has also heard of from a children’s book called The Magic Fan in which the hero saves the town from a tsunami because he has built a giant bridge over the village. We talked about how the earthquake starts a big wave, and how, just like water sloshing in the tub, it sloshes one way and then sloshes the other. In this case, it sloshed all the way to Hawaii and California.

Interestingly, my son seemed to completely miss the idea that this was a scary thing. He’s in the stage of his life where science is very cool and big things moving in the earth are even cooler. He does not connect that real people just like him live where all this is happening. It’s like a cartoon to him, and that’s probably just as well. His comment after I explained all of this was, “On Monday, I will tell Taro that there was a big earthquake and tsunami in Japan.” I suggested that Taro might already know.

First of all, let me note how separate my son’s understanding of the mechanics of earthquakes and tsunamis is from his perception of risk. Risk, in the sense of a chance of a bad event happening, depends on not just understanding but feeling that sense of badness. He does not (yet) feel that sense of badness, and thus the earthquake and tsunami are just interesting events devoid of the meanings and emotions that adults feel about them.

But, the reason I bring up the story of Taro isn’t because of my son’s blissful naivete about the risks and harms of earthquakes and tsunamis. It is because the story continued today after I left for work.

This morning, I asked him if he had talked to Taro about the earthquake. He replied, somewhat dejectedly, “Yeah, he already knew about it.” I said I wasn’t surprised, and that I guessed Taro’s family was very worried. I said (and kicked myself for not saying earlier), “A nice thing to say would be, ‘I heard about the earthquake. I hope your family is OK.’” Then, out of nowhere, my son said, “Taro says his grandmother was swept away in the tsunami. He also says that his house is gone and he doesn’t know where he will live when he goes back to Japan.”

He wasn’t making it up. We confirmed this afternoon that Taro’s family’s house and grandmother in Japan are indeed gone, victims of the tsunami.

I consider myself to be a risk communication “professional.” I have known for years about people’s insensitivity to magnitude when presented with risk estimates, mortality statistics, and other related numbers. I have my master’s students read Slovic’s paper and discuss these concepts each year.

I thought that this knowledge would protect me from psychic numbing as I contemplated the situation in Japan. I thought this background would help me not just to know cognitively the scope of the tragedy but to feel it too.

I was wrong. It took Taro’s story to show me how much was left to feel.

It is all too easy in risk analyses and risk communications to focus on the statistics. This event might affect 1,000 people. That event would impact only 500. Numbers help us to determine that one risk is larger or more harmful than another. They are the currency of risk science that shapes our actions.

Today reminded me, however, that risk science loses something important when we reduce a situation to numbers. Put another way, risk science needs its share of tears.

As of this writing, the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami is presumed to be more than 10,000 lives. 10,000 people, each of whom have affected families, co-workers, teachers, and friends. 10,000 stories, each unique.

Taro’s grandmother, and 9,999 more as unique and important as she was.

I will continue my work to help people understand risk statistics. For example, I will continue to research and develop visual displays such as icon arrays (sometimes called pictographs) that can improve knowledge, inform medical decisions, and debias risk perceptions. After all, risk science will always depend on calculating and communicating good risk statistics.

Yet, I will also try to hold this moment in time in my memory. I will try always to remember that each icon in my arrays, each tick in the counter, each line in my datasets represents one person whose life is affected by risk. One person as important to their family as Taro’s grandmother was to him.

No statistics can dry the tears I shed today or the pain I feel in my heart for Taro.

More importantly, Taro’s story reminds me that I should be … no, I must be just as emotionally moved when I contemplate each and every one of the thousands of other “Taros” who have been affected, directly or indirectly, by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Risk science is about human beings. Tears included.

Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher is an Assistant Professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a member of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine. He specializes in risk communication to inform health and medical decision making.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tasha Edwards March 15, 2011 at 10:39 pm

This is a very nice post, despite the occassion. I had a very hard time feeling emotion for the Japan situation at first, until I heard this guy on youtube say “I live in california and my mother called me crying because she was worried about my safety, and I felt extremely sorry for those in Japan knowing that someones mother made that same call and no one answered”. Thank you, and people like you on youtube, for making the numbers “real”.


Andrew Maynard March 16, 2011 at 5:38 am

Thanks for this Brian – not only deeply moving, but also a reminder that, as we are mesmerized by the events at Fukushima, the terrible death toll and human impact of the initial earthquake and tsunami are beginning to be overshadowed by our fascination with the threat of radiation exposure.


Elena Klaos March 16, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Thank you very much for this wonderful article, for your feeling of compassion Brian!
Thanks for a reminder that people are not the crowd, but each person is the unique universe which needs to be protected.

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