Death of Millions is a Statistic

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

An examination of jury verdicts over the past decade involving people charged for exposing others to toxic substances, has revealed that the more victims are involved in a case, the less harshly the perpetrator of the crime is penalized.

The study, which also included two experiments in the lab, is the first to show that the bias toward feeling empathy for a single individual versus many — known as the identifiable victim bias — causes people to make judgments based on emotion that are disproportionate to the severity of a crime.

“The inspiration for the study was the observation that we tend to focus an extraordinary amount of attention and resources to crimes that have a really small number of victims, and have a harder time remaining engaged to larger scale kinds of crime,” said psychologist Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University, lead author of the paper Aug. 25 in Social Psychological and Personality Science (.pdf).

The bias, which the researchers named the scope-severity paradox, has implications for a wide variety of fields, including the politics and media coverage of large-scale issues such as climate change or mass genocide.

“It fits well with a line of research that shows that as the number of people who are victims of some problem — whether it’s a crime or a famine — the responsiveness to it, and the likelihood of taking action to reduce the problem, decreases,” said psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study.

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This reminds me of two things.

First, classism and racism go hand in hand. Most of the people committing large-scale crimes are disproportionately white. And yet blacks, even when the same crime has been committed as whites, are disproportionately incarcerated.

Second, this study explains perfectly why anarchism, especially anarcho-capitalism, fails in a globalized world. Human nature evolved in small communities and so humans have little capacity for moral accountability on the large-scale. Those in power understand this and use it to control the population. Those in power understand they can get away with almost anything just as long as they do it on the large-scale.

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