The More Who Die, the Less We Care
THE IRRATIONAL ECONOMIST: DECISION MAKING IN A DANGEROUS WORLD, E. Michel-Kerjan, P. Slovic, eds., Public Affairs Press, 2009
Posted: 12 Mar 2010
Date Written: 2010
A defining element of catastrophes is the magnitude of their harmful consequences. To help society prevent or mitigate damage from catastrophes, immense effort and technological sophistication are often employed to assess and communicate the size and scope of potential or actual losses. This effort assumes that people can understand the resulting numbers and act on them appropriately.
However, recent behavioral research casts doubt on this fundamental assumption. Many people do not understand large numbers. Indeed, large numbers have been found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). As a result, there is a paradox that rational models of decision making fail to represent. On the one hand, we respond strongly to aid a single individual in need. On the other hand, we often fail to prevent mass tragedies such as genocide or take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses from natural disasters. This might seem irrational but I think this occurs, in part, because as numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action.
I shall address this problem of insensitivity to mass tragedy by identifying certain circumstances in which it compromises the rationality of our actions and by pointing briefly to strategies that might lessen or overcome this problem.
Keywords: Affect, Darfur, genocide, psychophysical model, collapse of compassion, moral intuition, numeracy
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