Why ‘one individual trumps the masses’
“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
— Mother Teresa
You’re in charge of a humanitarian effort to rescue refugees of Rwandan genocide. You’ve got enough money to save 4,500 lives. Would you rather save 4,500 refugees from a camp holding 11,000 people or 4,500 from a camp holding 250,000?
That’s the decision psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon asked two groups of research participants to make, author Shankar Vedantam reports in his new book, The Hidden Brain. Slovic found that people were way more reluctant to spend the money on the large camp than they were to spend it on the small one.
Save 10,000 lives instead of 20,000
Hmmmmm, Slovic said. OK, how about this: You’re running a philanthropic foundation. Would you 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, the research participants said they’d rather spend money saving the 10,000 lives rather than the 20,000 lives. What?! Rather than invest in saving the most lives, these folks sought to save the largest proportion of lives within a group of victims.
Are they crazy?! Nope. That’s just how our brains work, Vedantam writes:
“I want to offer a disturbing idea. The reason human beings seem to care so little about mass suffering and death is precisely because the suffering is happening on a mass scale. The brain is simply not very good at grasping the implications of mass suffering. Americans would be far more likely to step forward if only a few people were suffering or a single person were in pain.… Our hidden brain — my term for a host of unconscious mental processes that subtly bias our judgment — shapes our compassion into a telescope. We are best able to respond when we are focused on a single victim.”
We care less about more
So we don’t feel 20 times sadder when we learn that 20 people have died in a disaster than we do when we learn that one person has died. We don’t even feel twice as sad. In fact, we may actually care less.
Consider another study, this one reported by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. In this study, people read one of two letters. The first featured statistics about the magnitude of the problems facing children in Africa. The second shared the story of a single African girl named Rokia.
On average, the people who read the statistics contributed $1.14. The people who read about Rokia contributed $2.38 — more than twice as much.
“It seems that most people have something in common with Mother Teresa,” the Heath brothers write. “When it comes to our hearts, one individual trumps the masses.”
So how can you appeal to the heart? Show me one.
Sources: Shankar Vedantam, “The little dog lost at sea,” The Week, Feb. 16, 2010; Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Random House, 2007