Adjusting for the Irrational
Posted on April 15, 2009
Josef Stalin reportedly noted that “one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” As a man who was responsible for dozens of such “statistics,” Stalin knew of which he spoke.
According to studies by University of Oregon researcher Paul Slovic and reported by the Washington Post, people show more willingness to help individuals or small numbers of victims more readily than they will help large numbers.
“In [an] experiment, Slovic asked people to imagine they were disbursing money on behalf of a large foundation: They could give $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 20,000 lives a year — and save 10,000 of those lives. But they could also devote the $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 290,000 lives a year — and this investment would save 20,000 lives.
“Slovic found that people preferred to spend the money saving the 10,000 lives in the first scenario rather than the 20,000 lives in the second scenario: ‘People were responding not to the number of lives saved but the percentage of lives saved,’ he said.”
In fact, mass suffering decreases compassion.
“Slovic asked volunteers whether they would help raise $300,000 to save eight children who were dying of cancer. Those in another group were told only about one child with cancer and asked how much they were willing to donate to save the life of that child. Slovic found that people were willing to give more money to save one life than to save eight.”
Slovic thinks that this disconnect occurs due to an evolutionary trait that parallels physical sensations, noting that while we can tell the difference between total darkness and dim light, but not the difference between a 90-watt and a 100-watt bulb.
I think he’s just plain wrong in his conclusion. Rather than any physical evolutionary trait, people have a distinct need for personal efficacy. They are attracted to situations where they can have a impact. The simple fact is that large numbers render that feeling elusive, and replace it with a version of learned helplessness.
The question for communications professionals, corporations pursuing CSR programs, and charities seeking support is what to do with this information.
To me, this says corporations should set their sights on achievable goals. These goals may be progress on a ongoing issue, like sustainability, but should avoid the “drop in the bucket” objective. Strictly speaking from a public relations standpoint, it is more effective to solve a minor problem completely than it is to make a dent in a big problem. i.e. “We’re eliminating paper towels from all our bathrooms” vs. “we’re contributing money to fight AIDS in Africa.” Bill Clinton based his presidency on small ball victories, but the goals do not always have to be easy to achieve. On the other hand, the Gates Foundation often aims for unqualified successes on major problems as in the case of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
For charities, it means narrowing the scope of problems down to individuals. We have an easier time connecting with a single person than we do with a group. It’s why we like our Congressman, but we hate Congress. We like our school, but think the system is in trouble. And why we can feel animosity toward a group but have friends who are members of that very same group. This the secret to the success of organizations, like the Christian Children’s Fund, that offer sponsorship of individual children.
The important thing is that success is often realized when we work within the bounds of human quirkiness. It’s the type of irrational behavior that drives economists nuts, but is a fact of life for those of us who seek to influence human behavior. As Slovic puts it:
“When we trust our feelings in these cases, we are led down the path of turning our backs on the suffering of many people. Even though we don’t think of ourselves as uncaring, if we trust our moral intuition, it is not designed by evolution to respond accurately to these types of situations of mass tragedy.”