Telescope Effect

Even if 10 deaths do not make us feel 10 times as sad as a single death, shouldn’t we feel at least twice as sad? There is disturbing evidence that shows we may actually care less. … Paul Slovic … asked two groups of volunteers shortly after the Rwandan genocide to imagine they were officials in charge of a humanitarian rescue effort. Both groups were told their money could save 4,500 lives at a refugee camp, but one group was told the refugee camp had 11,000 people, whereas the other group was told the refugee camp had 250,000 people. Slovic found that people were much more reluctant to spend the money on the large camp than they were to spend the money on the small camp. … Would they rather spend $10 million to save 10,000 lives from a disease that caused 15,000 deaths a year, or save 20,000 lives from a disease that killed 290,000 people a year? Overwhelmingly, volunteers preferred to spend money saving the 10,000 lives rather than the 20,000 lives. …
Slovic once told volunteers about a 7-year-old girl in Mali who was starving and in need of help. They were given a certain amount of money and asked how much they were willing to spend to help her. On average, people gave half their money to help the girl. … One group of volunteers was asked whether they would give money to the little girl; another was asked whether they would donate money to the little boy. A third group of volunteers was told about both the boy and the girl and asked how much they were willing to give. People gave the same amount of money when told about either the boy or the girl. But when the children were presented together, the volunteers gave less.

Even if 10 deaths do not make us feel 10 times as sad as a single death, shouldn’t we feel at least twice as sad? There is disturbing evidence that shows we may actually care less. … Paul Slovic … asked two groups of volunteers shortly after the Rwandan genocide to imagine they were officials in charge of a humanitarian rescue effort. Both groups were told their money could save 4,500 lives at a refugee camp, but one group was told the refugee camp had 11,000 people, whereas the other group was told the refugee camp had 250,000 people. Slovic found that people were much more reluctant to spend the money on the large camp than they were to spend the money on the small camp. … Would they rather spend $10 million to save 10,000 lives from a disease that caused 15,000 deaths a year, or save 20,000 lives from a disease that killed 290,000 people a year? Overwhelmingly, volunteers preferred to spend money saving the 10,000 lives rather than the 20,000 lives. …

Slovic once told volunteers about a 7-year-old girl in Mali who was starving and in need of help. They were given a certain amount of money and asked how much they were willing to spend to help her. On average, people gave half their money to help the girl. … One group of volunteers was asked whether they would give money to the little girl; another was asked whether they would donate money to the little boy. A third group of volunteers was told about both the boy and the girl and asked how much they were willing to give. People gave the same amount of money when told about either the boy or the girl. But when the children were presented together, the volunteers gave less.

More here.  If you want to care more about distant victims, set aside your mental image of a large tragedy, focus your mind on one particular victim, and open your heart.  If you want to care less, instead of thinking about any one victim, try to visualize a much larger group of similar victims.  Now here’s the key question: do you want to care more or less?  Not sure? See which image you put in your mind, long enough to act on it.

This puzzles me a bit re near-far analysis.  It suggests we help distant victims more in near mode, even though far mode is where we more express abstract ideals we want others to see.  Do we not actually want others to think we help distant victims?

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  • Matt

    The issue is one of framing. Saving 20,000 lives feels like failure when it’s set against 270,000 ongoing deaths. The setting underlines the seeming futility of even trying to help. Saving 10,000 lives feels like success when it’s set against 5,000 remaining deaths. 2/3 of the problem is “solved” rather than less than 7% of the problem.

    • Granite26

      This is how I feel…

      Although that’s still a bit of craziness, a problem of 250,000 deaths equalling a problem of 25,000 deaths.

    • chesh

      This is my reading as well.

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  • Philo

    If a situation causes someone distress, and he can rectify that situation so as to relieve his distress, he is inclined to do so. But if his best effort will do little to relieve his distress, he is less inclined to act.

    If I find out that a group of people are in danger of dying–which causes me distress–but I can save them–doing which would relieve my distress–then I am strongly inclined to save them. On the other hand, if I find out that a much larger group of people are in danger of dying–again causing me distress (about the same amount, since my emotions are not geared to make fine quantitative distinctions)–and I can save only a small percent of them–the same absolute number as in the first scenario, but leaving most of the group still to die–my distress will hardly be relieved, because of the very large number that will still be going to die; so my motivation will be much less. In the first scenario I *solve the problem*; I can feel good about the outcome, and about myself. In the second scenario, at most I *barely make a dent*; the problem will remain unsolved, and I will still feel bad about the outcome, and about the fact that I was not able to *solve the problem*. My psychic economy is more favorable to acting in the first scenario, though in an abstract (far-mode) view this is irrational.

    • Captain Oblivious

      You’re right, of course, but it highlights an uncomfortable truth: we don’t help other people to make them feel better, but rather to me us feel better.

  • http://adequatelyreserved.wordpress.com bcg

    2/3rds sounds less like random fluctuation and more like a real solution.

  • Singularity7337

    Seriously–the Singularity could have prevented the quake. There’s no reason a 7.0 should kill anyone with modern technology. Singularity brings about more technology. Donate to SIAI.

    • http://lesswrong.com/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

      I agree with the facts addressed in this statement, but unless the end goal is to make SIAI look annoying, it’s probably wiser to wait for a better excuse to plug SIAI. “A fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

      • Phil

        Maybe singularity7337 was trying to make a point about far mode?

  • mike

    On the other side of the coin are celebrity deaths.

    Many people care about a celebrity’s death. However a common response to these people is to point out that the celebrity is only one person, and that there exist many people in the world whose deaths one should care about.

    The goal of such a response can be understood then as both a way to signal ones greater scope of compassion, while diminishing the need for actual compassion towards the celebrity.

  • black sea

    “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic. …”

    –Stalin

  • michael vassar

    While I agree with the comments, I also think that we don’t want to signal that we will expend money to help distant victims as this signal has to be continually maintained by spending more money and potentially demands money without bound. We want to signal to others that we do what’s right, but more importantly we want to signal that to ourselves, but we are vague regarding what we mean by “do what’s right” and can fairly easily be made to think that it includes helping distant victims.

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