COVID SOCIETY: What do all these stories of vaccine denial deaths do to our sense of empathy?

For the past two months, the Internet has been a graveyard of stories about unvaccinated deaths, which make up the majority of the pandemic’s current victims. News outlets, The Washington Post included, track down cautionary tales — the new mother who got to hold her baby only once, the husband and wife who died two weeks apart, the young and healthy athlete struck down in his prime, the autistic 28-year-old — and record their family’s sorrow. The narrative is even more potent when the victim expresses a dying wish for others to get vaccinated, and regrets their decision not to.

“One thing that psychologists know about persuasion is that it doesn’t operate through statistics and evidence. It operates through emotion. When you give people an identifiable victim, as opposed to kind of abstract aggregate statistics about harm, then that’s compelling,” says Piercarlo Valdesolo, a visiting associate professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., who studies moral judgment. He recalls the adage: “One death is a tragedy and a million are a statistic.”

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