"The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."

That's what Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin allegedly once said to U.S. ambassador Averill Harriman. And Stalin was an expert on the topic since his regime killed as many 43 million people. It turns out that the mustachioed murderer may have been expressing an acute insight into human psychology. Earlier this week, the Washington Post's always interesting Department of Human Behavior columnist Shankar Vedantam reported on the research of University of Oregon professor Paul Slovic who looked at how people respond to humanitarian tragedies. As Vedantam explains:

In a rational world, we should care twice as much about a tragedy affecting 100 people as about one affecting 50. We ought to care 80,000 times as much when a tragedy involves 4 million lives rather than 50. But Slovic has proved in experiments that this is not how the mind works.

When a tragedy claims many lives, we often care less than if a tragedy claims only a few lives. When there are many victims, we find it easier to look the other way.

Virtually by definition, the central feature of humanitarian disasters and genocide is that there are a large number of victims.

"The first life lost is very precious, but we don't react very much to the difference between 88 deaths and 87 deaths," Slovic said in an interview. "You don't feel worse about 88 than you do about 87."

Slovic did one experiment shortly after the Rwandan genocide. He asked volunteers whether they were willing to spend precious resources getting water to a refugee camp in Zaire, now called Congo. There were many pressing demands for the money, but Slovic told the volunteers that the water could save 4,500 lives. Without the volunteers' awareness, however, the researcher told some people the refugee camp had 11,000 people while telling others that the camp had 100,000 people. The number of lives that could be saved was the same in both cases -- 4,500 -- but Slovic found that people were reluctant to divert resources to save lives in a large camp rather than the same number of lives in a small camp.

In another experiment, Slovic asked people to imagine they were disbursing money on behalf of a large foundation: They could give $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 20,000 lives a year -- and save 10,000 of those lives. But they could also devote the $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 290,000 lives a year -- and this investment would save 20,000 lives.

Slovic found that people preferred to spend the money saving the 10,000 lives in the first scenario rather than the 20,000 lives in the second scenario: "People were responding not to the number of lives saved but the percentage of lives saved," he said. In the one case, their investment could save half the victims; in the case of the more deadly disease, it could save 7 percent of the victims.

There are parallels between such behavior and how we perceive physical sensations, and evolution's hand in shaping the way we perceive physical sensations may be behind the errors we make in judging suffering among our fellow humans. We are sharply aware of the difference between total darkness and the light thrown off by a five-watt bulb, but we are hard pressed to tell the lighting difference between a 90-watt bulb and a 100-watt one.

Slovic said people probably are inappropriately -- and unconsciously -- using a similar metric in humanitarian crises: Failing to save only half the victims in a tragedy seems less dreadful than failing to save 93 percent of the victims of another tragedy. The mathematical side of our brain could tell us the absolute number of victims saved is more important than the percentage of survivors, but our analytical side isn't usually in charge.

Slovic has also shown that the amount of compassion humans feel can diminish as the number of victims increases: In an experiment in Israel, Slovic asked volunteers whether they would help raise $300,000 to save eight children who were dying of cancer. Those in another group were told only about one child with cancer and asked how much they were willing to donate to save the life of that child. Slovic found that people were willing to give more money to save one life than to save eight.

"When we trust our feelings in these cases, we are led down the path of turning our backs on the suffering of many people," Slovic said. "Even though we don't think of ourselves as uncaring, if we trust our moral intuition, it is not designed by evolution to respond accurately to these types of situations of mass tragedy."

Fascinating. Whole Post article here

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  • Tacos mmm...||

    It turns out that the mustachioed murderer may have expressing an acute insight into human psychology.



    Well, he did know human folly like the back of his hand.

  • LurkerBold||

    Soviet dictator leader Joseph Stalin

    Better.

  • Dani||

    So agreed.

  • Jason||

    Yep, it's just this sort of hero worship thinking that enabled Stalin to get to power in the first place.

    Carry on, sheep.

  • Elemenope||

    I suspect that the human brain has a hardwired "grief/empathy" circuit that handles situations like a loss of a peer or community member. (People with a defective one of these is, I suspect, what contributes to sociopathy.)

    However, tragedies of a wider scale probably don't fit well enough into the perceptive schema for grief to trigger the "grief" circuit, and so it gets shunted to the higher level brain functions, like the logical/conscious mind, which are less capable of simulating strong emotions.

  • robc||

    lmnop,

    That might make sense if people will then reaching logical, but non-emotional conclusions. But, the stuff quoted above doesnt suggest that either.

  • ||

    Yes, Stalin was smart enough to realize that democracy was a fraud with his observation that what counts is not who gets to vote, but who gets to count the votes. Thus, most americans might be upset to hear of an isolated example of voter fraud, but experience voter fraud fatigue when presented with the possibility that it is routine and widespread.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Perhaps as a survival mechanism? If a person became increasingly upset with each additional casualty, it would not take long to fry your emotional circuitry.

  • Elemenope||

    That might make sense if people will then reaching logical, but non-emotional conclusions. But, the stuff quoted above doesnt suggest that either.

    Point. Perhaps if not the conscious mind than some other neuronal circuit ill-equipped for the task.

  • Elemenope||

    Perhaps as a survival mechanism? If a person became increasingly upset with each additional casualty, it would not take long to fry your emotional circuitry.

    That also makes sense. The brain uses that sort of shunting for a lot of other things in cases of overload, particularly sensory or emotional excesses. It could be a mechanism evolved to prevent a person from becoming emotionally paralyzed.

  • ||

    LurkerBold-

    You're right, Uncle Joe was more of a leader, kind of like a primes inter pares, what with the likes of Beria, Molotov, Khrushev et al.

  • Xeones||

    The Monkeysphere is perhaps also relevant here.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    I find it akin to how we routinely talk about "a trillion dollars here and a trillion dollars there"; I could write it out, if I wanted to, but I would be lying if I said I really could conceptualize what that looks like.

    So, to go in tandem with LM's point, whenever I hear about some ridiculous amount of money (primarily with government spending, natch) I kind of just tune out, because 850 billion and 900 billion are the same to me, even though 50 billion is, on a different scale, a fuckton of money.

  • ||

    LurkerBold-

    There! How many market fundamentalist Paultards have you ever heard give props to Uncle Joe?

  • LurkerBold||

    Libertymike, your trojan horse of words does not fool me.

  • Jimmy Stalin||

    The death of a single troll is a blessing . .

  • ||

    TAO-

    I agree with your exammple. Take the 50 billion. We have a current application-the amount reportedly blown by Mr. Maidoff. Did you empathize with the investors, in the aggregate?

  • Elemenope||

    "You know what I realized, nobody panics if everything goes 'according to plan'. Even if the plan is horrific. If I went on TV and said that a gang-banger got shot...or a truck-full of soldiers got blown up, nobody panics. It's all 'part of the plan'. But I just try to kill one little old mayor...well, then everyone loses their minds! [Hee, heh]"

    :)

  • ||

    Is Monkeysphere anything like Simianspeare?

  • Sean Healy||

    So everyone should be on Israel's side right now, correct?

  • bill||

    This makes perfect sense. Humans are wired to live in communities of 150 or less. In groups of that range everyone knows everyone else and you become a tribe. Above that number and some people are strangers so you really don't have an attachment to them and don't really care what happens to them.

  • ||

    So Leonidas actually had a Spartan contingent of 150 and an Athenian force of 150?

  • ||

    Libertymike, we spent a lot longer in caves than it's been since Thermopylae.

  • Elemenope||

    So Leonidas actually had a Spartan contingent of 150 and an Athenian force of 150?

    Well, no. I think the theory goes that kings and other community leaders (in the ancient world, probably priests) functioned as superpeers, allowing much larger groups to form and function together than the natural equilibrium number would normally allow, since everyone identifies the king or priest as part of their "150".

  • ||

    Nigel Watt-

    Not according to Mad Max.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Humans are wired to live in communities of 150 or less

    If that's true, I wonder why 150. I assume that that is probably the amount of people about which one could conceivably remember details without starting to forget.

    That is, 150 is the max for a tribe, because past that you cannot remember enough about each member to trust them.

  • ||

    I think it is combination of two things, at least in regards to this study.

    One is what Elemenope and others have said about the inability for humans to empathize with others outside their community.

    The other thing I believe is our hardwired sense of scarcity. That is why people generally will go for higher percentages over higher raw numbers in the study. It's why people get hot and bothered about some rare endangered animal and could care less that millions of animals are slaughtered each year for food. Because we aren't running out of cows anytime soon. Hence things like the extermination of a few million Jews by the Nazis is seen as worse than the 60 plus million killed by Mao. There aren't a whole lot of Jews but there are plenty of Chinese. It's not especially sensitive but it is coldly rational.

    I remember learning about this instinct back in college when studying marketing design. There are very good reasons that big box retailers stuff as much product on the shelf as possible and leave as little space as possible between items. It isn't just to save warehouse space. By making the product appear abundant shoppers feel more secure in making purchases. There is something in our brain that likes to be reassured that there is more to be had and something left when things are removed from the pile. Like the aforementioned lack of empathy outside our community, it is probably an evolutionary adaptation to prevent overgrazing or hunting by our ancestors.

  • Kolohe||

    Xenones-

    Excellent link; I hadn't seen that before.

  • ||

    This psychology probably explains the continuing existence of government. The old anarchist joke that individuals who point guns at us and demand our money are called criminals, large groups of people who do the same are called governments. But the same thinking applies for anything the government does. An individual who surreptitiously collected private data on all of his neighbors would be considered unethical and disturbed, but when government does it then it's necessary for national security.

  • ||

    The Monkeysphere is a classic, and very insightful.

    I think there's a lot to it. I have worked in large organizations and small ones, and in my experience the culture and atmosphere in an organization changes profoundly at around 100 employees or so.

  • Other Matt||

    "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."

    I believe the financial equivalent is:

    "The spending of a dollar is expensing. The spending of $1 Trillion dollars is "Change!""

  • Kolohe||

    If that's true, I wonder why 150.

    TAO, I think your correct with your assessment. Also, I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the autonomous basic military units, that form the building blocks for larger organizations - an army/marine corps company, a (smallish, sub or frigate) warship, are all nominally 150 people or so.

    My take is that in addition to each member being able to know enough about everyone else, it's the largest practical size for the overall leader to personally know everyone else.

  • ||

    When a tragedy claims many lives, we often care less than if a tragedy claims only a few lives. When there are many victims, we find it easier to look the other way.

    That would explain why I heard so little about that tsunami in 2004 that killed 200,000 people. Except it was covered continuously for months.

    In a rational world, we should care twice as much about a tragedy affecting 100 people as about one affecting 50.

    In a rational world I should enjoy my seventh Taco Supreme as much as my sixth, but I don't. I suspect diminishing returns applies to our sympathy and empathy as well as our utility.

    Slovic has also shown that the amount of compassion humans feel can diminish as the number of victims increases

    It also dimishes the more distant and different the victim is. None of this seems particularly insightful or controversial. For a professor of Psychology Dr. Slovic seems to have a very narrow foundation in Social Science.

  • Xeones||

    Pro L -

    how about simian spear?

  • Leonidas||

    Athenians? Those philosophers and boy lovers? Bah!

    *kicks LibertyMike into pit of death*

  • Gilbert Martin||

    The existence of wars,oppression and natural disasters have been the constant experience of humanity throughout all of history.

    When these things cause deaths, it is not something out of the ordinary. It's not an unexpected phenomenon.

    Having something bad happen to someone that you know personally of feel some kind of a connection with will register on the mind of the indivual far more than the dry statistics of the results of the "business as usual" deaths that regularly occur.

  • ||

    Human beings aren't necessarily programmed for preserving life for the sake of preserving life, we're programmed for survival. That's why percentages work better than absolute numbers. If a comet wiped out 95% of the earth's population, that would scare someone more than if someone said a comet wiped out 5 billion people (assuming you don't know the total population). Our mind may trick us into believing that we are compassionate to our fellow human, when really we're doing a mental calculation based on the total amount in the scenario and how many are dying. That's why when a story focuses on a murder, they don't bother to talk about all those who didn't get killed because if people really learned the statistics, they might decide its worth the risk.

  • Fluffy||

    In another experiment, Slovic asked people to imagine they were disbursing money on behalf of a large foundation: They could give $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 20,000 lives a year -- and save 10,000 of those lives. But they could also devote the $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 290,000 lives a year -- and this investment would save 20,000 lives.

    OK, I will play devil's advocate and try to actually defend approaching problem-solving this way.

    Whenever you devote resources to a given task or tasks, there's an unnamed additional task running in the background called "Stay Organized". And it's easier to accomplish that unnamed task if you attack problems in an order the reduces the total number of problems.

    Jiggle the numbers in the example a little to better see what I mean:

    What if the first disease only claimed 10,000 lives a year, and by spending the money you could eliminate it entirely? If you did that, you'd save fewer lives in your first year, but you'd eliminate this disease from the list of problems you have to worry about.

    There's a certain rationality to an incrementalist approach to problem solving where you devote resources to the problems it's easiest to completely solve first, and then move on to the more difficult problems, even if that gives you peaks and valleys of incremental utility gain during the process. Because you're not just managing utility, you're managing your own ability to focus and remain organized.

    So it's possible that on some level the respondents were trying to get closer to solving one problem completely before moving on, and not just experiencing some kind of empathy void or what have you.

  • ||

    How come government (made up of people) doesn't think this way? If 1000 people are unemployed, no one lifts a finger to help even though it could be done at very little cost compared to "sumpin must be done" when 250,000 people lose their jobs in a recession. I think it proves that politicians are not human. They see mass numbers of potential voters in peril. Voters in peril attack the powers that be, even if only at the polling place.

    Well, OK, maybe politicians are supremely human in that they do not see masses of voters in peril, they see their ownself in peril. Hmm.

    If we destroy all of Congress it will be less tragic than if one of them gets hit by a bus tomorrow, right? I think we owe it to ourselves to not take the chance that one Congresscritter suffers greatly on national TV with family weaping, etc. No, we can't take that chance.

    I'll take the first 149 people. Who's with me?!

  • jtuf||

    "When we trust our feelings in these cases, we are led down the path of turning our backs on the suffering of many people," Slovic said. "Even though we don't think of ourselves as uncaring, if we trust our moral intuition, it is not designed by evolution to respond accurately to these types of situations of mass tragedy."

    Score one for the Objectivists.

  • ||

    Didn't I read something by Landsburg discussing how one should decide to give money to charities? And basically, his conclusion was that if you consider yourself a humanitarian, then it doesn't matter which cause you think is better or whether you think you should split the money between multiple causes. What you should do is pick the cause you think will save the most lives with your money regardless of what the cause is.

  • jtuf||

    Nick,

    Governments do think this way when lives are at stake. Even though mayors outnumber national leaders, you would be hard pressed to find a mayor of a town killing 1% of its population. Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler worked on a much larger scale, so the millions they had killed were just an abstract number to them.

  • ed||

    "The death of one man is a tragedy"

    I doubt Stalin had even that much humanity to claim the quote.
    Humans were so much meat to that butcher.

  • ||

    Xeones,

    Well, that's disturbing. How long before they start carrying firesticks?

  • ||

    ,if life of man is tragedy what about those wishing for deathh,for instance i feel like making my one experince like kiling myself but sometimes i ask myself what would it be like when i die,oh God let me be myself,cos my godfather leave me astray,somebody help me i know this is not the right place for this comment but i need help,JOHN KONO,

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