The more victims, the less likely we are to respond.
[A recent study] is the first to show that the bias toward feeling empathy for a single individual versus many — known as the identifiable victim bias — causes people to make judgments based on emotion that are disproportionate to the severity of a crime.
“The inspiration for the study was the observation that we tend to focus an extraordinary amount of attention and resources to crimes that have a really small number of victims, and have a harder time remaining engaged to larger scale kinds of crime,” said psychologist Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University, lead author of the paper Aug. 25 in Social Psychological and Personality Science (.pdf).
The bias, which the researchers named the scope-severity paradox, has implications for a wide variety of fields, including the politics and media coverage of large-scale issues such as climate change or mass genocide.
“It fits well with a line of research that shows that as the number of people who are victims of some problem [rises] — whether it’s a crime or a famine — the responsiveness to it, and the likelihood of taking action to reduce the problem, decreases,” said psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study.
It has to do with the way empathy works, Slovic said. People empathize with people by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. The more shoes there are, the harder it is to empathize with any single individual. People don’t multiply their feelings of empathy by the number of people involved.
Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination — to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.…
Why do we get pleasure from the imagination? Isn’t it odd that toddlers enjoy pretense, and that children and adults are moved by stories, that we have feelings about characters and events that we know do not exist? As the title of a classic philosophy article put it, how can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?
— Paul Bloom, “The Pleasures of Imagination”
“Once you become an idea’s defender, you have a harder time changing your mind about it.”
— Michael Lewis, The Big Short, paraphrasing investor Michael Burry (slightly paraphrased again by me)
Jonah Lehrer examines why the home team tends to win more often. The answer is more complex than you might think.
Several years ago, an innovative study compared the performance of two NCAA basketball teams in the presence and absence of spectators. Because of a measles outbreak, the teams played 11 games while the schools were quarantined: the matchups took place in empty arenas. To the surprise of the researchers, both of the teams played much better without fans. They scored more points, had higher shooting percentages, and made more free throws. The cheers of adoring fans, it appears, actually hurt the home team. They just hurt the visitors even more.