Desensitization to Death: How the Constant Presence of Death Keeps Us from Preventing Death

The citizens of the U.S. are not strangers to death. The numbers and faces often seen on television screens or gracing the front pages of newspapers, statistics of those lost incessantly flood the news. Whether the cause is a school shooting, an act of police brutality, or a global pandemic, we are becoming accustomed to death. In 2019, the U.S. lost over 15,000 innocent lives to mass shootings. The recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has shed light on the many Black Americans who have been killed in acts of police aggression. We have lost over a million lives to Covid-19 globally and almost 300,000 in the United States. As a result of constantly being exposed to these terrifyingly high numbers, we have become desensitized to death. The convenience of expressing empathy on social media platforms coupled with the science of disaster psychology has led to the country’s numbness towards the presence of death, keeping us from preventing the causes of death themselves

Although social media has become a popular platform to gain supporters for social justice movements, such as BLM, posting has become so prevalent that these acts of empathy have seemingly become equivalent to checking a box. In the face of a tragic event, it is not uncommon to see many paying tribute through social media—Instagram stories and tweets are filled with people expressing their condolences and encouraging others to educate themselves. The nature of these apps allows posts to be reposted to a story with a simple click. Although these posts may be sincere for some, the convenience of sharing things like Instagram threads or others’ posts makes these stories so prevalent that we have difficulty feeling the weight of a situation. Some people post the stories to raise awareness or express genuine emotion, but others simply post to conform to societal trends or expectations—which means that they do not feel the emotional effect of death itself. And the more we see these stories and tweets about death, the less we feel (even if we’re more aware of the issue itself).

We’re not indifferent because we’re bad people—this desensitization is just human nature. Across studies in psychology and human responses to disaster, the trend of recurring desensitization to emotional trauma and death has been well documented. According to professor and psychologist Jeff Temple, while one death is horrific, “when people are forced to reckon with [too many deaths], each event, though singular in its tragedy, may lose its shock value for people who aren’t directly affected.” In the presence of a threat, our brains are wired to adapt to the trauma and emotional changes. The numbness we feel towards substantial amounts of death is a way of surviving and coping. I, for one, understand the difficulty of envisioning the numbers as living, breathing people. The death of even a single family member is horrifying. If I were to feel, for every one of those 300,000 people lost, even a quarter of the grief I feel towards the loss of a family member, I would not know if I would be able to live with that pain. Therefore, feeling numb and choosing not to let these numbers bother me is simply just a method of pushing forward. Elke Weber, a Princeton University cognitive psychologist, noted that “If you think about people living in a war zone, the kind of thing that was once appalling becomes normal.”

Yet when we don’t truly feel the weight of these deaths, we lack motivation to prevent the causes of death. At this point, school shootings are simply a part of life in the U.S. (at least in pre-Covid-19 times). The first 46 weeks of 2019 saw 45 school shootings. And though there was a push for gun reform following the Parkland shootings, we never saw sweeping reforms or increased gun control like New Zealand did after their 2019 Christchurch shooting. That’s likely because while mass shootings are common in the U.S., a mass shooting hadn’t occurred in New Zealand since the 1990s. The shock, horror, grief, and anger (emotions that are now dulled or nonexistent in the U.S.) citizens felt led to immediate gun restrictions. Despite the progress made with the BLM this summer, some people have moved on, treating the movement as a trend because they don’t register all the deaths the movement is trying to prevent. Our desensitivity to death may also be one of the many reasons why people in the U.S. (especially those not at risk) refuse to follow Covid-19 restrictions. People simply don’t feel the weight of those 304,000 deaths. It is natural for humans to have a harder time processing large numbers, but the apathy we feel in the face of all of those deaths stops the U.S. from preventing them.

On some level, we will always feel desensitized towards death. We can still take action to make progress as a country and prevent more death. Perhaps a solution can come from our leadership. Regardless of the death toll, 9/11 profoundly impacted the nation, partially because of the response. Bush walked the 9/11 ruins; Obama shed tears over Sandy Hook. With Covid-19, rather than seeing Trump meet frontline workers or make emotional speeches as his predecessors did, we only see arbitrary death tolls.

If presidents and politicians lead and grieve by example, then perhaps we can disrupt this state of numbness—at least enough to get people to wear masks and to comply with Covid-19 restrictions. Though not a complete solution to the United States’ growing desensitization, this solution is one that could prevent deaths in the immediate future.

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