Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paul Slovic on why we don't take action, and how actors, writer, and directors wield enormous power to change that

I just posted on the recent Nicholas Kristof column, "Would You Let This Girl Drown?" where Kristof references Paul Slovic's work, specifically his paper "If I look at the mass I will never act": Psychic numbing and genocide. Today I dug further and read Slovic's paper. The gist of the whole thing can be explained from this excerpt of his abstract:
"Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are 'one of many' in a much greater problem. Why does this occur? The answer to this question will help us answer a related question that is the topic of this paper: Why, over the past century, have good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide?"
Slovic goes on to describe affect, "the positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgements, decisions, and actions." Affect is simply the "sense (not necessarily conscious) that something is good or bad." It's automatic, and it's fast. And even though we're faced with facts that might lead us in another direction, we mostly make our decisions via "intuitive, automatic, natural, non-verbal, narrative, and experiential" means. That sometimes leads to us making choices that, in the clear light of day, don't seem to make sense. He describes studies that show consistently, that donors are more likely to make a donation that helps a single child, rather than donations that might help many children.

I'm not going to get into great detail about Slovic's work, but it's a great paper and I urge you to take a look for yourself. What's clear from the paper, though, is that our emotional, automatic responses to situations are what drive many of our decisions. In fact, we're likely to use logic and facts (our "analytic" system) simply to support the conclusions we've already made through our "experiental" system.

So what does that have to do with compassion and acting, writing, and directing?

You guessed it––plenty!

While Slovic points out that simple statistics, no matter how enormous, ultimately do not inspire people to take action, "images often strike us more powerfully, more deeply than numbers... we quickly grow numb to the facts and the math." "When it comes to eliciting compassion, the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer," Slovic says, and he points out many examples thereof including Baby Jessica, who fell into a well in the late 1980's; her rescue was the subject of massive media attention and her rescue caused nationwide celebration.

And this is where we intersect with acting, with writing, with directing. It's tough to convince billions of people to make their decisions in a different way; much of what we do is automatic. Slovic references Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote:
"The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else's point of view... A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or in Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, 'How very sad,' then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter's cheek. You could taste that person's breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life that someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine."
Slovic claims that relying on experiential systems, by using "powerful affective imagery such as that associated with Katrina and the South Asian tsunami" is hopeless. He points out that relying on this method creates the possibility of sensationalism, and requires consistent and powerful action on the part of the media. Slovic advocates clear attention to the facts, to compel governments to take action––in this case, against genocide.

But he himself points out how difficult it is to get anyone to pay attention to facts, to numbers. It is exactly these mechanisms, imagery, narrative, personalization, that artists must wield. And by doing so mindfully, their power is enormous!

By creating real characters, human stories that audiences identify with, we become compelled to take action on their behalf. Save the Children has known this for a long time: we're more likely to sponsor a real child with a real face, than to give money to a general fund for the well-being of children, even though the benefit might be greater.

I often say that in my work as a manager, I'm working my clients to create the world that I want to live in. So many artists want to make an impact with their work, and one surefire way to do it is to create real human beings that audiences automatically feel compassion for. This doesn't mean artists can only work on "issues," films about world tragedies, plays about human suffering. But it does mean that each time a story is told, there's an opportunity to create a space where an audience identifies with another human being's suffering, and is compelled to take action on it.

This might be on the scale of genocide, or it might be on the scale of family dynamics and relationships, or anywhere in between. Reading a paper about the American Dream, man's fear of failure and dreams of success, and family dysfunction doesn't inspire us to look inward. Watching a production of Death of a Salesman might. Hearing facts about addiction and how it can destroy a family is sad, but to watch Long Day's Journey into Night makes us look at our own families with compassion. To hear about 800,000 deaths in Rwanda is horrifying, but to watch Hotel Rwanda hits us in the gut, and inspires us to take action. To hear about millions of deaths in the Holocaust is gut-wrenching, but to read The Diary of Anne Frank, or to watch Schindler's List, or to learn any human Holocaust story through a human narrative makes us want to keep it from happening again. *

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