One Death is a Tragedy, One Million is a Statistic

Dave Collins of the Associated Press has covered a grim story (Emphasis mine):

Middletown police say 21-year-old city resident Tony Moreno confessed to throwing his son, Aaden, off the bridge July 5 and then jumping himself amid a custody dispute with Aaden’s mother.

After the 7-month-old boy was thrown to his death from a bridge last month, local officials have been considering safety improvements for the 90-foot-high span over the Connecticut River that has been known for decades as a destination for suicidal people.

Why is it so often the case that a social problem persists for a long period and then one dramatic instance of the problem galvanizes the previously somnolent into action? The answer, according to the great Daniel Kahneman, is rooted not in politics but in the limits of human cognition.

In a series of studies, researchers asked subjects to react to a particular vivid prototype, for example a photo of one bird struggling to escape an oil spill. After being asked how much they would donate to save the bird, the subjects are then asked how much they would donate to save countless birds from all of the world’s oil spills. Surprisingly, the two answers tend to be similar. That is, people who will donate $10 to save a particular prototypic bird in distress in one location will only donate $10 to save an unspecified number of birds in distress in many unspecified locations. It’s a stunning finding in that the subjects’ responses are logically equivalent to saying that birds in general are worthless but one particular bird has significant value. Kahnemann’s interprets such results to mean that human beings often react strongly to prototypes but are insensitive to quantity.

10_22_90_205x273This phenomenon has been understood by many activists over the years. Rosa Parks was one of a huge number of African-Americans to be asked to give up her bus seat to a white person, but civil rights activists chose her rather than a statistics chart to make their case. They had a pool of people to pick from and chose Parks because she was so unquestionably a remarkable and decent person (Other candidates for the role were set aside because of real or rumored problems in their lives that might have ruined the desired narrative).

Even though it had a happy result in the case of Rosa Parks and desegregation, there are great hazards when this shortcoming in our brain meets the political process. Sometimes the one, vivid example we all rally around is so unpresentative that we then create policy that doesn’t work. Kimberely Bergalis, who apparently was infected with HIV/AIDS by her dentist, was a vivid prototype which impressed upon Congress and the country a misdiagnosis of the real problem. As my colleague Doug Owens eventually showed, the risk of becoming infected with HIV in health care interactions comes mainly from patient to care provider transmission rather than the other way around.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “One Death is a Tragedy, One Million is a Statistic”

  1. "It’s a stunning finding in that the subjects’ responses are logically equivalent to saying that birds in general are worthless but one particular bird has significant value."

    I think maybe not. Maybe it's logically equivalent to saying that my ten dollars can save that bird, but money I give to save endangered birds in general has to be prorated over huge numbers of birds, so it is only significant if it is combined with the contributions of millions of others. My ten dollars, then, represents my contribution to helping solve the problem.

    1. That's an intriguing take on what is going on in people's heads. Harold Pollack pointed out to me this morning some other research in this area. If you ask someone how much will you pay to save the starving girl Sally they say X. If you ask them how much they will pay to save the starving boy Joe, they also say X. But if you say how much would you give to a fund that would turn you entire gift over to Sally or Joe but you can't know which in advance, they say less than X.

      1. I'm struggling to wrap my head around that finding. What do you think the correct inference is? It could be that people value certainty per se, or instead maybe there's a cost that people attach to anything that diminishes their autonomy, or….

        Either way, that'll have me pondering for the rest of the day.

        1. We like to believe our altruism is, well, altruistic, but there's usually more going on. In the case Harold referred to, perhaps many people like Sally more than Joe, and many more prefer Joe to Sally. I wonder what happens if they're told we'll give each half? One would think it the stated amount would either rise if they know half will go to their preferred recipient. Or would it drop because half to each isn't enough to save either one?

  2. Could also mean "My ten bucks can make a real difference for that one bird, but it will make no difference at all to a million birds." Sort of like thinking there is no reason to vote because my vote won't make any difference amid millions of other ballots cast.

  3. Keith, Jennifer Aaker (on your campus) has part of the answer. A story, she claims, is 22 times more memorable than a fact. And when the story is indicative of a pattern (e.g., the Indian woman whose face was mutilated by acid), it is that much more telling.

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