Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing

JOURNAL OF RISK AND UNCERTAINTY, Vol. 14, No. 3, February 1997

Posted: 5 May 1998  

David Fetherstonhaugh

Stanford University

Paul Slovic

Decision Research; University of Oregon - Department of Psychology

Stephen Johnson

Decision Research

James Friedrich

Willamette University

Abstract

A fundamental principle of psychophysics is that people's ability to discriminate change in a physical stimulus diminishes as the magnitude of the stimulus increases. We find that people also exhibit diminished sensitivity in valuing lifesaving interventions against a background of increasing numbers of lives at risk. We call this "psychophysical numbing." Studies 1 and 2 found that an intervention saving a fixed number of lives was judged significantly more beneficial when fewer lives were at risk overall. Study 3 found that respondents wanted the minimum number of lives a medical treatment would have to save to merit a fixed amount of funding to be much greater for a disease with a larger number of potential victims than for a disease with a smaller number. The need to better understand the dynamics of psychophysical numbing and to determine its effects on decision making is discussed.

JEL Classification: I12

Suggested Citation

Fetherstonhaugh, David and Slovic, Paul and Johnson, Stephen and Friedrich, James, Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing. JOURNAL OF RISK AND UNCERTAINTY, Vol. 14, No. 3, February 1997. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=5156

David Rae Fetherstonhaugh (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States
415-725-5487 (Phone)
415-725-5699 (Fax)

Paul Slovic

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)

Stephen Johnson

Decision Research

1201 Oak Street, Suite 200
Eugene, OR 97401
United States
Not available (Phone)
Not available (Fax)

James Friedrich

Willamette University

Salem, OR 97301
United States
Not available (Phone)
Not available (Fax)

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