Joseph Stalin once claimed that a single death was a tragedy, but a million deaths was a statistic. New research from the Kellogg School of Management validates this sentiment, confirming large-scale tragedies don’t connect with people emotionally in the same way smaller tragedies do.
In three studies, the researchers found that increasing the number of people victimised by a crime actually decreases the perceived severity of that crime and leads people to recommend less punishment for crimes that victimise more people.
The researchers found that a “scope-severity paradox” exists in which judgment of harm tends to be based on emotional reactions, and thus people have a stronger emotional response to singular identifiable victims rather than to an entire crowd of sufferers.
“We see this time and again on the news, where a missing person is featured as a leading story for months because there is emotional interest wrapped up in that single individual,” said Nordgren, assistant professor of management at the Kellogg School. “The bottom line is that it’s difficult for people to connect when there are many faceless victims.”
In the first study, Nordgren asked participants to read a story about a financial adviser who defrauded his clients. Half the time, the story described how only two or three people were harmed and the other half of the time, dozens of people were harmed. After reading the story, participants were asked to evaluate the severity of the crime and to recommend a punishment for the perpetrator. As predicted, participants in the small-scope condition judged the fraud case more harshly and recommended a longer jail sentence for the perpetrator.
The second experiment tested whether the researchers could correct this bias by manipulating the identifiability of the victims. The participants read a story about a food processing company that sold tainted food that made people sick. One group was given a basic description of the victims whereas a second group received a photo of one of the victims along with her name and occupation. As in the first experiment, stronger identifiability with the victim led participants to perceive the crime more severely and to recommend greater punishment for the company.
Finally, a third experiment examined the scope-severity paradox in real jury verdicts. The researchers looked at the outcomes of 133 U.S. court cases between 2000 and 2009 in which someone had been negligently exposed to either asbestos, lead paint or toxic mold. They found that total damages decreased as the number of people affected increased.
“In all three studies, we found that increasing the number of people victimised by a crime actually decreases the perceived severity of that crime and leads people to recommend less punishment for crimes that victimise more people,” said Nordgren.
According to Nordgren, the paradox is problematic especially in situations involving mass crimes like genocide in which harm is extreme and widely dispersed among a large population of people.
“To combat this paradox, individuating victims partially helps the problem,” he said. “When there is specific information about one or two victims out of a larger group, there is more sympathy than when there isn’t specific information about anyone.”
Nordgren, L. F. & McDonnell, M. M. (2010). The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why Doing More Harm Is Judged to Be Less Harmful. Social Psychological and Personality Science. (published online 25 August 2010).
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