One of the greatest feats of the human brain is its ability to filter a vast amount of information into a manageable stream of relevant information. Evolution has sculpted the course of this stream in order to maximize fitness, ensuring that we pay attention to things that are relevant for our survival and reproduction, and filter out irrelevant.
Aldous Huxley describes this as a ‘reducing valve’ – our brains funnel the enormous amount of information in the environment in whichever way proved to be most adaptive to our ancestors.
This means two things; we have sampled an excruciatingly tiny portion of the buffet of potential experiences our neural hardware is capable of, and we are insensitive to certain environmental information that didn’t confer an adaptive advantage in the ancestral environment. Developing sensitivity to this information is crucial for rational and ethical behaviour in the modern world.
Cognitive biases can lead the most empathic and conscientious people to behave in ways that could appear as sheer callousness.
The source of this seemingly selfish behaviour is not malice or indifference, but more that our brains are not equipped to apprehend reality as it really is. By recognizing our cognitive limitations we can understand why people act in inconsistent and unethical ways and how we can avoid falling into the same trap ourselves.
If people acted in accordance with their espoused egalitarian preferences, they would treat the value of every human life equally. In practice this is not the case. Despite endorsing egalitarian norms studies have shown unconscious cognitive biases can lead to valuation functions that decrease in absolute value as the number of victims increases!
The contributing factors:
Psychophysical Numbing. Contrary to the egalitarian maxim that every life should be valued equally, there is not a linear relationship between number of lives at risk and the size of donations. Instead there is a curvilinear relationship; sensitivity wanes as the number of victims increases. This is known as ‘psychophysical numbing’– diminished sensitivity as the victim number increases, or put differently, people perceive little value in saving an additional person if there are already many lives saved (and if only one person is at risk people value saving that life highly).
Scope Insensitivity. People seem to be insensitive to changes in magnitude. It has been shown that people are willing to donate almost the same amount to save 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000 birds drowning in oil ponds. People are insensitive to numbers but are extremely sensitive to the plight of individuals.
Singularity. People often exhibit a surprising amount of caring for individuals but can be relatively unmoved by catastrophes with a large human cost. A single individual often garners more financial support that a group of victims. It appears the singularity effect is related to the absence of other victims because donations tend to decline when the single victim is part of a group.
Proportion dominance. People often give more weight to the proportion of lives they are saving than to the absolute number of lives saved. Although participants evaluated helping a higher number of victims as more normative, in actuality their decisions weren’t sensitive to the number of lives saved. This might be because proportions are easier to evaluate than absolute numbers.
Pseudo-inefficacy. Sometimes knowing the number of lives one cannot save leads to a lack of motivation to help those one can save; a feeling of helplessness quashes motivation. But of course, not being able to save everyone does not undermine the lives one can save; in absolute terms the value remains the same. This is important: not being able to solve the whole problem of poverty doesn’t make the good that can be done any less worthwhile.
Identifiability. Identified victims are valued more than statistical victims. Again, people are unaffected by numbers. Making the identifiable victims makes their plight real in people’s minds. The loss of a single identified life may be felt more deeply than many statistical ones. Apathy increases as the victim numbers grow large enough that they cannot be comprehended emotionally, resulting in compassion fatigue.
People are motivated to action not by facts but by feelings. We simply don’t have the brain power to scale up the compassion and empathy we feel for one person’s suffering to the commensurate degree for 1000 people, or even 10 people. Josef Stalin touched on this insensitivity when he said ‘one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic.’ The direct result of this is that good people are complicit in an enormous amount of suffering happening all over the world.
So what can be done?
The first solution is to recognize our own susceptibility to systematic biases that lead us to unsympathetic behaviour; once this has been recognized our rationality can be deployed to alleviate the greatest amount of suffering possible. Recently this effort has been known as ‘Effective Altruism’, which aims to use evidence and reason to evaluate all actions to achieve the greatest positive impact. (Peter Singer gives and excellent overview of Effective Altruism in his TED Talk.) When allocating resources to humanitarian causes, difficult trade offs must be made and the allocation may largely depend on which ethical theory is adopted. This is cognitively demanding which often leads to people not donating at all.
Fortunately there are several expert individuals and organizations that do just this, so not everyone has to go through the cognitive strain. Give Well conducts in-depth charity research to find where money can be best spent to have the greatest positive impact. 80,000 Hours can assist in finding careers that will have the greatest positive impact. The life you can save is an excellent starting point for those who want make an ongoing positive impact.
What exactly is it, then, that motivates people to act compassionately? Psychologists have shown that vivid mental imagery plays a central role in affected responses underlying many decisions; emotional impact is crucial in motivating behaviour. The more concrete the mental imagery the stronger the empathic concern. Increasing the number of victims makes mental imagery more difficult and abstract and therefore less of an emotional response is provoked.
It has also been shown that specific features of those in need should be focused on. Presenting individual victims as part of a group tends to reduce affective responses to any single one of them. Priming participants to process information affectively lead to stronger emotions and higher donations.
To conclude, contextual factors that have no normative import can alter how sensitive people are in their valuations of human lives, leading to behaviour wildly at odds with people’s ethical positions. Mechanisms that influence emotional reactions are particularly important in determining the deviations from rationality. How emotions are generated contribute to how people evaluate lives- it is imperative we recognize our cognitive limitations in order to avoid having our moral behaviour dictated arbitrarily by context.
In having the awareness of the power of context on evaluations of human life we find the onus is on us to use reason to avoid behaviour that equates to callous indifference, and instead find the actions most aligned with out ethical standpoints and of the greatest positive impact.
Dickert, S., Västfjäll, D., Kleber, J., & Slovic, P. (2012). Valuations of human lives: normative expectations and psychological mechanisms of (ir) rationality. Synthese, 189(1), 95-105.
George Deane is currently studying for and MSc in Cognitive and Decision Sciences at University College London. George's undergraduate studies were in Philosophy. He is especially interested in Neuroethics and the implications of technologies for cognitive enhancement.
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