Tuesday, January 19, 2010

the telescope effect

WaPo | The evidence for what I am going to call the telescope effect comes from a series of experiments. Psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon asked two groups of volunteers shortly after the Rwandan genocide to imagine they were officials in charge of a humanitarian rescue effort. Both groups were told their money could save 4,500 lives at a refugee camp, but one group was told the refugee camp had 11,000 people, whereas the other group was told the refugee camp had 250,000 people. Slovic found that people were much more reluctant to spend the money on the large camp than they were to spend the money on the small camp.

Intrigued, Slovic pressed further. He asked different groups of volunteers to imagine they were running a philanthropic foundation. Would they 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, volunteers preferred to spend money saving the 10,000 lives rather than the 20,000 lives. Rather than tailor their investments to saving the largest number of lives, people sought to save the largest proportion of lives among the different groups of victims.

We respond to mass suffering in much the same way that we respond to most things in our lives. We fall back on rules of thumb, on feelings, on intuitions. People who choose to spend money saving 10,000 lives rather than 20,000 lives are not bad people. Rather, like those who spend thousands of dollars to find a single dog rather than directing the same amount of money to save a dozen dogs, they are merely allowing their hidden brain to guide them.

Our empathic telescopes are activated when we hear a single cry for help -- the child drowning in the pond, the dog abandoned on an ocean. When we think of human suffering on a mass scale, our telescope does not work, because it has not been designed to work in such situations. Humans are the only species that is even aware of large-scale suffering taking place in distant lands; the moral telescope in our brain has not had a chance to evolve and catch up with our technological advances. Our conscious minds can tell us that it is absurd to spend a boatload of money to save one life when the same money could be used to save 10. But in moral decision-making, as in many other domains of life where we are unaware of how unconscious biases influence us, it is the hidden brain that usually carries the day.