The Frontal Cortex

Understanding Tragedy

The tragedies are so vast they are incomprehensible: thousands are dead after a powerful earthquake in China while up to half a million people in Myanmar may die as a result of post-cyclone epidemics. How does the mind grapple with such nightmarish statistics?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has demonstrated that suffering on such a epic scale falls into one of the brain’s many blind spots. His experiments are straightforward: he asks people how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. For example, Slovic found that when people were shown a picture of a single starving child named Rokia in Mali, they acted with impressive generosity. After looking at Rokia’s emaciated body and haunting brown eyes, they donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents to Save the Children. However, when a second group of people were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa – more than three million children in Malawi are malnourished, more than eleven million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance, etc. – the average donation was fifty percent lower.

At first glance, this makes no sense. When we are informed about the true scope of the problem we should give more money, not less. Rokia’s tragic story is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions, which are what compel us to act. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can’t comprehend suffering on such an unimaginable scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. Or why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine, but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

So don’t think of the thousands of people who are dying of thirst right now in Myanmar. Think instead of one thirsty person.* And then give to the International Red Cross.

*I also wonder if this is why photographs are so much more effective at conveying massive tragedies. When we look at a picture, the vague horror of statistics is replaced by the suffering of a single face.

Comments

  1. #1 Mary
    May 12, 2008

    That’s what Stalin supposedly said, isn’t it? “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”

  2. #2 Allison
    May 12, 2008

    Yes, but I think there is another variable at play. If I see one starving child, I’ll believe that my paltry donation of $5 can actually do something- have a lasting effect, if small, on that specific child. However, I’d have a hard time believing my $5 ain’t worth crap to a whole nation of starving people. It may not be true, but it’s part of my thought process.

    It’s similar to the Green movement. Why on earth should I turn off the water when brushing my teeth when the REAL impact comes from massive corporations pumping sewage into the water and toxins into the air. Changing my lightbulbs is laughable compared to that kind of waste.

    At a certain scale we get to the “freeloader” mentality, when we convince ourselves that the problem is just far to grand for any single person to make a difference. So the decision is simply not to do anything.

  3. #3 jfrancis
    May 12, 2008

    Not quiet a sonnet but how shakespeare might have seen it.

    A Thousand Words

    Pale doth follow
    the hundredth word
    while anguish leaps
    to the pictured heart.

  4. #4 SMD
    May 13, 2008

    I think the comparison in the study you mentioned is biased. Photograph has strong emotional component to it and statistics are emotionless banal presentation. So comparison of numbers here would be biased. I would guess emotional component attached to any tragedy would be stronger stimulus for response. Tsunami in Asia (short-term, wide media coverage)garnered a massive aid, same scale of slow-paced devastation in Africa has tough time getting funds. I think drama of event/suffering, reminding of our own vulnerability is more important in triggering response, regardless of numbers or any other factual variables.

  5. #5 SMD
    May 13, 2008

    I think the comparison in the study you mentioned is biased. Photograph has strong emotional component to it and statistics are emotionless banal presentation. So comparison of numbers here would be biased. I would guess emotional component attached to any tragedy would be stronger stimulus for response. Tsunami in Asia (short-term, wide media coverage)garnered a massive aid, same scale of slow-paced devastation in Africa has tough time getting funds. I think drama of event/suffering, reminding of our own vulnerability is more important in triggering response, regardless of numbers or any other factual variables.

  6. #6 Katie
    May 13, 2008

    I wonder if mirror neurons are involved in this phenomenon. They fire in response to observed and self performed actions, and some studies have linked them to empathy. If these neurons are active when we suffer or when we see others suffer in the same way, they may play a part in an empathetic response. I would not expect that hearing a bunch of statistics would activate this system, at least not as strongly as a concrete visual stimulus.

  7. #7 Julie Stahlhut
    May 14, 2008

    It would be interesting to know whether this is a general phenomenon. Do we have similar reactions when trying to process more mundane, less distressing information? For example, suppose you’re the parent of a high school student, and you’re deciding whether to spring for the cost of a SAT review course. Which of the following is more likely to influence your decision?

    * You read a newspaper article about a survey of 10,000 SAT takers that showed that students who have taken review courses get higher scores.

    * Your niece got disappointing scores on her first go at the SAT, so she took a review course and then scored 120 points higher on her second try.

    (Disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about the effectiveness of SAT review courses; this is just an example for illustration.)

  8. #8 David
    May 14, 2008

    forgive my poor english. in the context of the study; when you are shown one person the decision is easy because you know that money will go directly to help that person. if you are shown a group of people, the decision becomes more complex e.g., how will my donation be distributed? can i trust the people responsible for distribution of the funds to make sound decisions with my money etc. these are just some of the examples of how i feel when i donate money to large organizations claiming to help large groups of people.

  9. #9 Jonathan Vos Post
    May 15, 2008

    If, as the “Expelled” liars say, Darwin (and not Hitler) is responsible for the Holocaust, then, if Stalin supposedly said: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic” — isn’t that “proof” that it was T.D. Lysenko (and not Stalin) responsible for those 10-20 million killed in The Great Terror (Purge of the Thirties)?

  10. #10 geciktirici
    February 15, 2009

    At first glance, this makes no sense. When we are informed about the true scope of the problem we should give more money, not less. Rokia’s tragic story is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions, which are what compel us to act. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can’t

  11. #11 Nathan
    August 31, 2009

    This post is hardly surprising. Our emotions have evolved to prime our responses to the physical environment. While our intelligence has the flexibility to encompass large numbers they do not prompt an emotional response.
    As an economist, I find it’s more proof that classic economics provides a flawed understanding of human behaviour…

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    November 25, 2011

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