Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why do we care more about the miners in Chile than the flood victims in Pakistan?

We have a bias in favor of "specific" victims.

"We are much less interested in helping a victim – we only want to help the victim," Jonah Lehrer says in that blog post. He correctly calls this "deeply irrational." It makes no sense to distinguish between people who are "specific" and those who aren't. Everyone is a specific individual!

Lehrer quotes a new study that asked people questions to try to determine how much they used analytical thought as opposed to hunches. The more analytical people showed less of an emotional bias in favor of specifically identified victims:

Individual differences in analytic (“rational”) processing style moderated the effects of different request types on donations to a Zambian relief fund. Less-analytic processors donated more to a single identified victim than to requests describing statistical victims or a combination of both; more-analytic processors showed no differences.
Lehrer also notes:
[T]he floods in Pakistan have received far less attention than warranted, in part because most of the stories focus on the vast scope of the disaster, and not on individual tragedies.
There are a couple ways that the "focus on the vast scope" could diminish people's caring. Lehrer means it causes us to view the victims as faceless and indistinct. But that wouldn't seem to fully explain the disparity: we are seeing photos of specific victims in the flood, not just statistics.

Another factor is that, even if we understand that the flood is taking an enormous human toll, the huge scale (it's said to have affected 20% of Pakistan, which has a population of 170 million) makes it seem so unmanageable that we instinctively throw up our hands. Trying to solve the problems seems hopeless. With the trapped miners, there's a discrete mission that needs to be accomplished, and we can imagine instantly feeling joyous once it's over. Despite the suffering and anxiety, the miners can eventually be reunited with their loved ones, and everyone will have a new perspective on life. With Pakistan, the best imaginable success would be to gradually mitigate the enormous damage; saving everyone or nearly everyone is out of the question. It's similar to why movies with happy endings are so popular.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." -- Stalin

Anonymous said...

It's not that we care less, but more about the location - 2,300 feet underground. I would assume mine workers don't have claustrophobia issues, but even if they do get out they will endure a 3 hour trek to the surface in a steel cage only 28 inches in diameter.

Frankly...that scares the hell out of me.

Grobstein said...

I was intrigued by the "more-analytic processors" identified in the experiment. For one, I was surprised and somewhat pleased to learn that people who identify themselves as more rational apparently actually are more rational, at least in this narrow way. After all, "I enjoy intellectual challenges" and I don't "believe in trusting my hunches."

I would like to know more about more-analytic processors and why they are the way they are.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Grobstein, you might be interested in Tyler Cowen's book on "neurodiversity," deceptively titled Create Your Own Economy, or this Bloggingheads diavlog about the book (especially around 13:00-17:00, but the whole conversation is excellent).

I'd also like to know more about those different categories of people, and I'd like to think I'm one of the "analytic processors." Actually, the methodology in that study sounds pretty crude, since it was based on undergrads' self-reporting on their own thinking styles. Psychologists so often assume that everyone thinks like college students.

Incidentally, did you go out of your way not to link to your blog in your Blogger profile?

Grobstein said...

Read it, actually. I liked it but I don't particularly think I'm on "the autistic spectrum."

Profile is just thoughtlessness -- I think my blog lived somewhere else when I set up Blogger.

Ann Althouse said...

I think we have a primal fear of being buried alive, and the miners' predicament draws us in for that reason. Dealing with too much water seems more normal to us.

For one thing, those buried men are trapped and must be helped by others, but people in water have a fighting chance at struggling to survive (or so we think). Our urge to rescue is stimulated by the trapped people.

I think if someone were out in the middle of a body of water, we'd feel it more, because the need for rescue would be apparent.

But after a flood, it's a more common survival problem that we imagine people working through on their own.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

And these miners are heroic and noble. They're models of grace under pressure. They're the salt of the earth -- literally of the earth.