Mass Suffering and Why We Look the Other Way

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, January 5, 2009

When President-elect Barack Obama, an early opponent of the Iraq war, asked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who helped to authorize the war -- to be his secretary of state, many liberals scratched their heads.

When Obama asked Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates -- a Republican who has run the Iraq war for more than two years -- to stay on in his new administration, the scratching grew fierce.

But no one needs to read the tea leaves on one particular aspect of Obama's foreign policy: Obama, Clinton and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. have all called for aggressive American action against humanitarian crises and genocide. Susan E. Rice, Obama's nominee for U.N. ambassador, has said that if a Rwanda-style genocide began again, she "would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." Samantha Power, a leading proponent for an interventionist American policy in humanitarian crises, was a senior Obama adviser during the presidential campaign.

"Look empirically at the kind of people who will populate the decision-making positions in the new administration and compare them with the principals" in the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, said John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, an advocacy group that fights genocide. "What we will get, possibly for the first time in my life, is leadership from the top in these crises."

Obama might want to include a scientist named Paul Slovic in his team. Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon, has conducted experiments that provide an unusual window into why the United States has often failed to intervene in humanitarian crises -- and why it is likely to remain slow to do so in the future.

Slovic's research suggests that the central reason the United States has not responded forcefully -- and quickly -- to crises ranging from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide, from the ethnic cleaning that occurred in the 1990s Balkan conflict to the present-day crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, is not that presidents are uncaring, or that Americans only value American lives, but that the human mind has been unintentionally designed to respond in perverse ways to large-scale suffering.

In a rational world, we should care twice as much about a tragedy affecting 100 people as about one affecting 50. We ought to care 80,000 times as much when a tragedy involves 4 million lives rather than 50. But Slovic has proved in experiments that this is not how the mind works.

When a tragedy claims many lives, we often care less than if a tragedy claims only a few lives. When there are many victims, we find it easier to look the other way.

Virtually by definition, the central feature of humanitarian disasters and genocide is that there are a large number of victims.

"The first life lost is very precious, but we don't react very much to the difference between 88 deaths and 87 deaths," Slovic said in an interview. "You don't feel worse about 88 than you do about 87."

Slovic did one experiment shortly after the Rwandan genocide. He asked volunteers whether they were willing to spend precious resources getting water to a refugee camp in Zaire, now called Congo. There were many pressing demands for the money, but Slovic told the volunteers that the water could save 4,500 lives. Without the volunteers' awareness, however, the researcher told some people the refugee camp had 11,000 people while telling others that the camp had 100,000 people. The number of lives that could be saved was the same in both cases -- 4,500 -- but Slovic found that people were reluctant to divert resources to save lives in a large camp rather than the same number of lives in a small camp.

In another experiment, Slovic asked people to imagine they were disbursing money on behalf of a large foundation: They could give $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 20,000 lives a year -- and save 10,000 of those lives. But they could also devote the $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 290,000 lives a year -- and this investment would save 20,000 lives.

Slovic found that people preferred to spend the money saving the 10,000 lives in the first scenario rather than the 20,000 lives in the second scenario: "People were responding not to the number of lives saved but the percentage of lives saved," he said. In the one case, their investment could save half the victims; in the case of the more deadly disease, it could save 7 percent of the victims.

There are parallels between such behavior and how we perceive physical sensations, and evolution's hand in shaping the way we perceive physical sensations may be behind the errors we make in judging suffering among our fellow humans. We are sharply aware of the difference between total darkness and the light thrown off by a five-watt bulb, but we are hard pressed to tell the lighting difference between a 90-watt bulb and a 100-watt one.

Slovic said people probably are inappropriately -- and unconsciously -- using a similar metric in humanitarian crises: Failing to save only half the victims in a tragedy seems less dreadful than failing to save 93 percent of the victims of another tragedy. The mathematical side of our brain could tell us the absolute number of victims saved is more important than the percentage of survivors, but our analytical side isn't usually in charge.

Slovic has also shown that the amount of compassion humans feel can diminish as the number of victims increases: In an experiment in Israel, Slovic asked volunteers whether they would help raise $300,000 to save eight children who were dying of cancer. Those in another group were told only about one child with cancer and asked how much they were willing to donate to save the life of that child. Slovic found that people were willing to give more money to save one life than to save eight.

"When we trust our feelings in these cases, we are led down the path of turning our backs on the suffering of many people," Slovic said. "Even though we don't think of ourselves as uncaring, if we trust our moral intuition, it is not designed by evolution to respond accurately to these types of situations of mass tragedy."

Slovic's work showing people's tendency to intervene in situations in which they can save all or most of the victims, but to turn away from situations in which they cannot help most of the victims, has important ramifications for the new administration. "It is often the case we can do something even if we can't do everything, and we ought not do nothing just because we can't do everything," Prendergast said.

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