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

See all articles by Paul Slovic

Paul Slovic

Decision Research; University of Oregon - Department of Psychology

Date Written: 2010

Abstract

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

Suggested Citation

Slovic, Paul, The More Who Die, the Less We Care (2010). THE IRRATIONAL ECONOMIST: DECISION MAKING IN A DANGEROUS WORLD, E. Michel-Kerjan, P. Slovic, eds., Public Affairs Press, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1567223

Paul Slovic (Contact Author)

Decision Research ( email )

1201 Oak Street, Suite 200
Eugene, OR 97401
United States
541-485-2400 (Phone)
541-485-2403 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.decisionresearch.org

University of Oregon - Department of Psychology ( email )

Eugene, OR 97403
United States
541-485-2400 (Phone)

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