Comfortably Numb: Account for Desensitization

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Recently, I heard about an in-person mock trial during the pandemic conducted by another consultant outside our group. At the beginning of the day, this consultant said, the jurors and the attorneys attending were all pretty diligent about wearing their masks. By the end of the day, however, most had gotten comfortable enough that their masks were around their necks instead of their faces, or were lying on the table. Now, think about it logically: Nothing about the actual chances of getting the coronavirus had changed over the course of the day. There was just as much risk in the afternoon as there was in the morning. It wasn’t increased security that caused the jurors to go unmasked, they had just become used to being there. In the morning’s new and unfamiliar environment, they were sensitized, but by the afternoon, they were desensitized. Setting aside the fact that any actual transmittal of the virus would take days and not hours to show symptoms, jurors still seemed to follow the thought-process, “Well, everything has been okay for me so far, so the precautions now seem a lot less urgent.”

Some might argue that a more generalized version of that mock trial process is taking place across the country. It seems in large parts of the country, Americans are getting out and about while taking fewer precautions, even as infections and deaths continue to climb. What best explains this sanguine attitude? Nothing more than the duration of the disruption. We were panicking in March and April because it was all new. But now that it is September, we have lived with the proximity of possible illness for quite some time and, as a result, the panic has been worn down by time. Desensitization as a psychological process is, of course, not unique to the pandemic. Legal persuaders work in a genre that often depends on leveraging perceived threats. But we can never presume that the subjective feeling of a threat matches its objective reality. Advocates need to consider how desensitized the audience may already be after living with any given risk. In this post, I will look at what the current situation says about desensitization, and how litigators may sometimes need to resensitize.

Desensitization

The public’s desensitization of the pandemic has been noted by many sources. Dr. Wendy Rice, a Tampa psychologist, was quoted in a recent news story, “It’s horrendous the number of people that are getting sick and dying and the fact what we’re just going on about our business,” she said, “compared to what we were thinking in March or April, is very different. It speaks to the fact that we have become desensitized to the enormous numbers that we’re seeing.” A recent article by Michael Fitzgerald in Medium argues that regular mass shootings have made Americans desensitized to the death toll of the current pandemic: “Because we fail to understand the severity of the situation and slowly become desensitized to it as a result, much of the American public would rather veil reality in favor of a more comfortable and familiar lifestyle.

One psychological factor at play may be cognitive dissonance. Internally, it doesn’t make sense that we would live under crisis conditions for such a long time, so we reconcile that cognitive dissonance by deciding that the crisis isn’t really a crisis.  We respond to the persistence by downplaying the severity.

We can become desensitized to almost anything: the pandemic, school shootings, auto accidents, cancer deaths, drug overdoses… the list is infinite. That means that plaintiff attorneys who want to play on a threat from a situation, a product or a practice, or a defendant who wants to build credibility for a party who defends us from these kinds of threats, cannot take it for granted that a threat’s objective reality translates into a subjective feeling of vulnerability.

Resensitization

Dealing with desensitization begins with understanding that threat perception is subjective, not objective. It begins in not assuming that the dangers that you, your experts, or the facts show to be real are actually experienced as real by your target audience.

So what helps to resensitize an audience toward something they’re at risk of becoming desensitized to? A few things:

Awareness. It could help to explicitly reference the what and the why of desensitization itself.

Humanization: Ultimately, stories matter, not statistics. Telling the narrative of an individual will be more moving than the aggregate data.

Perspective: Michael Fitzgerald notes that coronavirus death toll now fits somewhere between World Wars I and II American death tolls, a figure that is well ahead of all other American wars…combined.

It could take a combination of all of those tactics, and more, in order to get a target audience to both appreciate and to personalize a perception of risk.

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Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license

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