The identifiable victim effect

2010-12-10

in Books and literature, Politics, Psychology, Science, Writing

In the second chapter of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values , Sam Harris describes the strange phenomenon in human psychology where we care less about a problem as the number of victims rises. When we see one little girl who is starving, we generally feel more concern and willingness to help than we do when it is her and her brother, or her and her entire village.

This seems deeply irrational. Bigger problems should motivate a larger desire to help. Perhaps it reflects our implicit awareness of our own limitations. Helping one little girl may be within our power in a way that helping a large group is not. Still, this quirk seems likely to be very damaging. If we don’t feel a strong moral impulse in the face of a big problem, we are unlikely to band together and provide a big solution.

That applies directly to climate change. It may also have something to do with our sometimes strange notions about the value of avoiding extinction and our thinking about apocalypse.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan December 12, 2010 at 10:43 am

“Still, this quirk seems likely to be very damaging. If we don’t feel a strong moral impulse in the face of a big problem, we are unlikely to band together and provide a big solution.”

I think groups do feel strong moral impulses in the face of big problems when they feel themselves to be a group faced with a problem, and they feel empowered to act on that problem. You might look, for instance, at the growth of political support for republicanism in Northern Ireland after the death of British MP Bobby Sands – overnight political support for Sinn Fein went from marginal to a significant portion, to the point where they became the 2nd largest party. That was not done through advertising, corporate sponsorship – but through the actual binding together of latent support into a common peaceful (although, not too peaceful at least until the late 90s) political movement.

What were the conditions of that group acting together towards a productive solution to their common problems? The feeling of common identity was certainly important, as was the feeling that by acting together a difference could actually be made. Those two things are totally lacking both in the case of the starving millions, and in the case of climate change. The “group” which will be affected shares no obvious common identity, and they feel totally disempowered to do anything about it (you yourself don’t believe that any current political parties are serious about acting on climate change).

Milan December 12, 2010 at 11:58 am

The Green Party might be up to it, but it is hard to imagine them ever forming a government in Canada.

Tristan December 12, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Perhaps the Green party could capture something which is currently unexpressed in Canadian politics, but which does express an important aspect of many Canadians’ identity.

As the current system comes under greater and greater stress, it will tend towards disintegration. Whether the re-configuration is to the right, left, and climate forward or backward depends on the actual political movements which we can be a part of.

Anon December 12, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Wasn’t the Green Shift a pretty significant climate change policy, backed by a mainstream Canadian political party?

BuddyRich December 13, 2010 at 7:19 am

I think the problem is that only a minority of people see climate change for the problem it really is so there is no need to band together to solve it.

There has been enough FUD from the other side of the debate to make lay people question the problem, which leads into another quirk of human irrationality, that once a belief is held, it is much harder to change someone from that belief to something else, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

R.K. December 14, 2010 at 12:47 pm

People have great difficulty confronting big problems – even in their own lives. Every book on procrastination suggests breaking up a big worrisome problem into small concrete steps.

Our unwillingness to tackle big issues is probably one of the biggest cognitive defects people need to work on.

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