Desensitization, Statistics and the Psychic Numbing of Numerics

imageOne of the lessons Safety continually doesn’t learn is that numerics, metrics and statistics desensitize people to caring. This is known as psychic numbing and has been well researched by Slovic and others (

At the moment our TVs and media are filled with data, figures, percentages, deviations, curves and graphs and the more we see them, the less we care. This is what a fixation on numerics does. This is what the discourse of zero generates. This is what injury rates create. When you define your being by numerics (zero) the by-product is the diminishing of helping and care. But don’t take my word for is, do an audit of the AIHS BoK or WHS curriculum seeking out a discussion on care, personhood and helping and see what you find. The archetype of Zero and the discourse of numbers as the guiding semiotic and language of the safety industry ( manufactures a loss of care and helping.

Another of the dynamics that don’t work is to use metaphors of war and mechanistic metaphors to speak about loss, grief and harm. When people are flooded (overwhelmed) with loss and harm they tend to close down to big picture metaphors. There is no such thing as a lean, green safety machine ( Military metaphors don’t work because people cannot draw the connection to war. This is The Rule of Metaphor (Ricoeur). This is how metaphor works ( This is why an understanding of Poetics and metaphor is important for Safety if it wants to understand how people are socially influenced. You can claim all the differently you want but if your metaphors remain mechanical, engineering and numeric, nothing can change. If you want to subvert the toxicity of safety, you need a new language.

Then again, I don’t expect Safety to understand the semiotics of metaphor, nor how it penetrates and influences the collective unconscious. When a discipline is locked within its own fortress, why would it want knowledge outside of its psychosis? Why would it seek a transdisciplinary approach? How could it know that even its language used to describe difference is not different? If you don’t know what your own symbols and language are doing unconsciously why would you want to know about the unconscious nature of language and semiotics?

(if you are interested you may want to start by reading Kristeva )

One of the key messages of Camus’ The Plague ( is the desensitization of people to suffering. Watkin gives a wonderful overview of the phenomenology of statistics, Camus and desensitization here: and you can read more about Camus and The Plague here: Similar views are demonstrated in art captured best in the Dance of Death (

So Safety is caught in a dilemma and it doesn’t know how to get out of it because it doesn’t have the equipment to dig itself out of its own hole. Here is an industry ‘framed’ by a discourse, numbers and the language of zero because it theoretically cares about harm. Such is the outcome of a delusional binary logic anchored to the language of zero. The by-product of this process is the desensitization of people to harm. The only way to break the cycle of desensitization fostered by zero is to change language and metaphor, symbols and iconography (and the dump the language of zero) but this is never going to happen unless Safety contemplates a transdisciplinary approach to risk ( ). What an even greater quandary when the industry then denies that zero is the issue.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

6 Replies to “Desensitization, Statistics and the Psychic Numbing of Numerics”

  1. Josef Stalin, another notable pillar of humanitarianism once proclaimed….. “One death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic”

  2. I can remember a quote from the late George Martin several years ago regarding the success of The Spice Girls:

    “Many people are now listening with their eyes”

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