The Hidden Brain and the Telescope Effect: How we think about tragedy

Shankar Vedantam
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; 1:00 PM

We know genocide is a greater tragedy than a lost dog. Or do we?

Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam discusses the "telescope effect" and the manner in which our brains process tragedy and empathy in a Washington Post Magazine article adapted from his book, "The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives," to be published this week. He took questions and comments January 19.

The transcript is below


Shankar Vedantam: Welcome to this online discussion about my Sunday magazine story -- Beyond Comprehension -- that was published last weekend. The story is excerpted from my new book, The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives. The book is launched today by Random House Inc.

The excerpt is drawn from the final chapter of the book, which explores twin biases in the way we think about large numbers and small numbers. I argue in the excerpt published in the magazine that errors in the way our minds process large numbers leads us to make systematic errors in moral judgment. I cite a number of experimental studies, many of which were conducted by the superb psychologist Paul Slovic, that demonstrate how unconscious biases subtly alter our perceptions about different tragedies, and cause us to feel more visceral compassion when the number of victims is small, and less visceral compassion when the number of victims is large.

You can learn more about my book at, follow the connections I make between unconscious bias and news events at and form your own discussion group at


Freising, Germany: When you write that humans respond best to a single victim, I wonder if that has to do with empathy and perhaps also the instinct that if you help an individual, you yourself as an individual may someday be helped as well.

Isn't it much easier to transpose your own emotions onto a single person (um, maybe onto a single dog as well) than a faceless mass of people?

I suppose that's why the best disaster or even travel reporting usually depicts individuals within large disasters.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question, Freising. You've captured in a nutshell one of the central insights of the new research, which is that our ability to feel empathy for others is primarily shaped by our ability to feel empathy for other individuals. As Slovic told me at one point, "If empathy is putting yourself in someone else's shoes, think of putting yourself in two people's shoes. It does not work. It falls apart."

I am not quite sure I agree with you about why this phenomenon comes about. I think it has less to do with a conscious process of reasoning that says we want others to feel empathy toward us when we are trapped, and is largely an unconscious process. I think it probably has a lot to do with what evolution has discovered is functional in getting humans to survive as a species. We'll probably come back to this idea again later.


Laurel: I must admit it's hard for me to get up much enthusiasm over reducing suffering in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or rural China, where it seems to be an intrinsic part of an existence lacking natural and human capital, instead of an artificial imposed disaster.

How much do the lives of statistics matter to us? When we visit the Louvre or Hermitage in St. Petersburg, do we reflect on the tens of millions of peasants from two centuries ago who lived on a starvation diet so their taxes could assemble these great art collections? Are the two million Chinese who died building the Great Wall "worth it" to us?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the thoughtful question, Laurel. If I understand you correctly, you are pointing out that statistics are not very persuasive in getting us to feel empathy. (The old Stalin quote about one death being a tragedy and a million deaths being a statistic.)

The question that I find interesting is why this is the case. If we are predisposed to feel empathy toward others, why is this sense of empathy not amplified when those who need help, or those who have died, number in the millions?

I don't think your distinction between natural and artificial tragedies is on the money. I think we can find many examples where people respond empathetically to disasters -- regardless of whether they are "natural" or "man-made" -- when the number of victims is small, rather than large.

I completely agree that we are generally numb to mass suffering that was produced in the service of some great cause or art, especially when the suffering was in the distant past (unless we have some deep and personal connection to the events.) But why is that the case?


Riverdale Park, Md.: You make the case that the human brain works in a way that makes us care more about a puppy than, say, 100 people in dire strsaits. What do you think about the morality of this?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Riverdale. You ask an important question.

We tend to think about people who are sympathetic to others as being moral, and those who are unsympathetic to others as being immoral. This is a useful heuristic, but I think it only takes us so far. The problem is that with many disasters, the people who care about fewer victims (or a single victim) are not doing it out of callousness toward the larger number of other victims, but because our internal compasses direct us to feel compassion toward the few.

I return to this idea over and over in The Hidden Brain. Our internal guide about moral behavior is often flawed. We regularly believe we are acting in moral and high-minded ways when the outcomes and data show we are not. It is one of the central contentions of the book that we need to get away from using our intuitions about goodness and badness to be our guide, and start using outcomes -- how many lives saved, how many jobs created, how many heart attacks averted -- to be our compass.


Washington, D.C.: Fascinating article - thanks so much! It provoked a lot of debate among my friends on Facebook.

I noticed that this explains why charities have tried so hard to set up one-to-one connections between donors and beneficiaries. Like the thing where you sponsor a child in Africa or contribute to a particular person's loan through a microfinance organization. These groups have gotten in trouble for making the connection seem more direct than it is. It would be a lot easier for the charities do their work better if we just gave undirected money. But, wow, marketing with one individual's story is obviously a better way to touch your brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much, DC. I think you are exactly on the money here. Charities have often found themselves puzzled that telling people about millions who need help in, say, Africa is much less effective at getting people to open their wallets than telling people about the single child or person who needs help. This is why many nonprofits (either intentionally or unintentionally) have come to focus on individual victims. Even charities focused on non-humans do this -- The World Wildlife Fund would be a lot less effective in fundraising if it took the focus off the panda and talked about the thousands of species of animals that need our help.


Washington, D.C.: Is part of the problem the media? I can understand why quirky, unique stories like Hokget's get attention in the media -- because they're a departure from the norm (the norm, sadly, being death and destruction in faraway places). But the media attention garners public attention and then officials are forced to 'play politics' and devote resources to something like a single dog's rescue, or risk being villified in news reports.

Shankar Vedantam: The media certainly have their fair share of the blame here, but it is not as if reporters and editors do not have hidden brains!

Journalists are also doing what nonprofits are doing -- they have found, through trial and error, that the anecdotal story about the single victim is much more powerful to read than a dry story about thousands of victims. The central problem is not that reporters do not write stories about mass tragedy; the problem is that it is much more affective to write about the single victim. Those are the stories readers want to read and hear about; those are the stories that get placed on front pages and on magazine covers and on the evening news. The downside of this collective bias is that we are much less able to feel compassion -- and act responsibly -- toward groups that do not have single victims around whom we can wrap our empathy.


Harrisburg, Pa.: This has applications to political science. We have often heard how voters react less to the politician who knows all the statistics on how many people will be affected by legislation and more to the person who has some good rhetoric that peronalizes an issue. Am I correct on this or am I missing something?

Shankar Vedantam: I think again you are absolutely right. Candidate Obama or Candidate McCain would be much less effective in talking about job loss in general than about Susan Harris of Pittsburgh, a mother of three, who just lost her job and her health insurance and now has to choose between paying the rent and paying her medical bills.

I don't think there is a problem in using individual stories to personalize larger issues. The problem is that we are often careless about how we do this, and we then sometimes come to believe that helping Susan Harris is the point, when she is only the standard bearer of a problem that is much larger than any one individual. We feel good about saving the individual -- which is good and important to do -- but forget that acting morally requires us to do much, much more.


Alexandria VA: Is there evidence that we respond differently to a one-time tragedy versus the nearly-constant-tragedy that is life in much of the developing world? In other words, does the earthquake in Haiti loosen more wallets than the despairing poverty that was normal life in Haiti before the earthquake? Seems to me that it is "yes," that we give to disaster relief in greater numbers than to continuing charitable work.

Shankar Vedantam: This is absolutely the case. I don't know whether this is specifically true of Haiti, but many previous disasters around the world have shown that the disasters cause charity dollars to skew disprportionately toward the single cause. Again, and this is important to underline, the phenomenon is driven by compassion, not callousness. We see earthquake victims and want to do something to help. But at every moment, it is useful to remember that there are many more victims whom we do not see. I have personally found it useful to contribute to charities working in disaster areas, but not require that my money be used only for that particular disaster, but can be utilized by, say a Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders or a Partners in Health, in whatever domain the nonprofit believes would help the largest number of people.


Bethesda, MD: Shankar,

This peculiarity of our brain must have had some evolutionary benefit. Does your book discuss this?


Shankar Vedantam: It does indeed. Here is an excerpt from my book:

I have often wondered why the hidden brain displays a telescope effect when it comes to compassion. Evolutionary psychology tends to be an armchair sport, so please take my explanation for the paradox as one of several possible answers. The telescope effect may have arisen because evolution has built a powerful bias into us to preferentially love our kith and kin. It is absurd that we spend two hundred dollars on a birthday party for our son or our daughter when we could send the same money to a charity and save the life of a child halfway around the world. How can one child's birthday party mean more to us than another child's life? When we put it in those terms, we sound like terrible human beings. The paradox, as with the rescue of Hokget, is that our impulse springs from love, not callousness. Evolution has built a fierce loyalty toward our children into the deepest strands of our psyche. Without the unthinking telescope effect in the unconscious mind, parents would not devote the immense time and effort it takes to raise children; generations of our ancestors would not have braved danger and cold, predators and hunger, to protect their young. The fact that you and I exist testifies to the utility of having a telescope in the brain that caused our ancestors to care intensely about the good of the few rather than the good of the many.


Falls Church, Va.: I like your "telescope idea." I think another recent example might be the case of Neda, the young Iranian woman who became a symbol of the cause when she was shot and killed. She was just one person -- many others died in the protests -- but her case put a single face on a massive movement.

Shankar Vedantam: I think you are right, Falls Church.

And I would argue that thinking of Neda as a symbol is immensely useful, and can be put to excellent moral application. The problem only arises when the symbol overtakes the issue -- when, say, electing a black man to president gets seen as a solution to racism as a whole.

So long as symbols are seen as symbols, they are extremely useful. But watch out when the symbol becomes the be-all and the end-all of the discussion.


Arlington, Va.: I think this is similar to the other dilemma:conspicuous consumption. A lot of times people are chided for spending tons of money on, say, nightlife and movies and tattoos and things that are generally "frivolous" rather than donating that same money to charity or whatever. But that consumption also supports the economy. Is it so wrong to participate in a society that's about more than finding a next meal? And how do we reconcile that ethically with the desperate needs of others?

Shankar Vedantam: Hello Arlington, this question takes us into deeper waters than I feel I am capable of navigating. There are real ethical dilemmas between consumption and caring for others, but the answers (as you start to suggest) are quite nuanced and complicated.

A simpler place to start might be that we all have some parts of ourselves that want to see a better world, a kinder, more empathetic world. Perhaps we are not willing to forego all our material possessions to help others, but we are certainly willing to forego some things. How can we best utilize what compassion we have to offer to help the largest number of people? That seems to be a more useful place to start a conversation ...


Fairfax County, Va.: Your book excerpt is fascinating in its own right and I plan to buy your book. So there. That being said, the timing re Haiti was an amazing coincidence (it obviously went to press, being the magazine, long before the earthquake). I have commented on the Washington Post "discussion" question by Phillip Kennicott that your article answers his question about why the pictures from Haiti seem more horrific. I think it is because they are close up and show individuals instead of masses or aerial overviews. So, even though it is unimaginably big, we are getting small glimpses of human dramas our brains can process. Do you agree that's why everyone is donating so heavily to Haiti? Cultural Rewind With Philip Kennicott: Images of Destruction

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Fairfax. I am sure my publisher will be happy to learn you are going to buy the book!

As to your question, the answer most certainly is yes. Photographers, in many ways, have learned early on the central lesson I discuss in this magazine story. A hundred faces are not more powerful than a single face; a thousand faces is significantly LESS powerful than a single face in conveying a story.

You are obviously correct in noting this article was scheduled for publication well before the recent tragedy in Haiti. But again, I want to make clear I have absolutely no problem with an image of an individual victim being used to get people to contribute money -- the only thing we must remember is that it is not very useful to tie the hands of the relief agency we are contributing to and tell them that they should help only that victim, or even people in that particular disaster.

As one of the earlier questions suggested, everytime a major disaster strikes, I have little doubt it sends dread into the hearts of people who are suffering from "ordinary" disasters, the people who are suffering from plagues and pestilences that are now so common they no longer pull our heart strings.

One of my central conclusions after writing my book is that we cannot rely on our hearts to reach out and help people suffering from "everyday disasters," because our hearts are predisposed to reaching out and wanting to help the earthquake survivor in Haiti, the person who is crying out for help most urgently. We have to rely on our minds in order to act as truly moral agents -- to channel and direct the energy that our feelings generate in order to help the largest number of people.


Columbia: This is an unpleasant thought, but one I've wondered about:

People come out of the woodwork to save pets/animals in need.

Do you think it's possible that it's because animals are "innocent" and a pet is entirely dependent on humans for all its care? We all have wonderful memories of our pets (maybe less so, in dealing with people?)

Do you think people are less likely to help other people in need, because we don't collectively tend to view people as "innocent" and besides, there is always someone else out there to help them? Or, they could help themselves (even if it is just to communicate?)

I hate to admit it, but I get a lot more choked up thinking about a pet outside on a bitterly cold cold night, than a homeless person. I can't be the only one.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question, Columbia, and the honesty it required to articulate it.

I do not for a moment doubt that there are always many other factors at play when people are making moral judgments than the issue I write about in this story. I think it is certainly true we have biases, for example, to help victims who are nearby than victims who are distant, to help those who resemble us in some way rather than people who seem alien. I might care intensely about dogs, and you may care intensely about cats.

It is true that some of us feel more compassion for pets than for people, but the paradox here (as with everything else we have discussed) is that our feelings spring from love, not callousness. (It is not that we dislike people, it is that some of us love dogs or cats.) Our goal should not be to eliminate love, or to belittle people for acting in loving ways. Our goal should be to channel love so it can work in the most productive and far-reaching ways.


DC area: Shankar,

You mentioned that perhaps we should start to think morally in terms of outcomes-- how may lives saved, etc.

Some people say that we will inevitably have to ration health care. This is the same as deciding who lives and who dies. Can you explain how this would be moral?

Thanks. Very interesting discussion.

Shankar Vedantam: This might again be deeper water than I care to tread, but I think that too often in public policy matters, we trust our instincts and intuitions too much when it comes to moral judgment.

We find medical rationing abhorrent, for example, because we feel it would require telling people who need help that we cannot help them beyond a certain point. The person whom we are telling this to is right before us, and all our internal moral compasses tell us that our first responsibility is to help the person right before us. However, the problem is that our moral intuitions are not very good at grasping the implications of our decisions for the hundred other people who are not standing before us. If resources were infinite, there would be no dilemma. We would help everyone to the maximum. But if resources are finite, is it better to spend the hundred dollars saving one life or saving ten?

I think philosophers have grappled with this question for many centuries, and the truth is there are very good answers on both sides. I am comfortable with people saying they want to help the one person before them -- so long as the decision is made consciously and deliberately, that we are aware that our act of compassion toward one might simultaneously be an act of callousness toward the many.

The problem I have is when the decision is carried out by unconscious algorithms in the hidden brain that leave us feeling good about what we have done and cause us to remain unthinking about what we have not done.


Baltimore, MD: Say I am helping a family member pay for school. That person has a place to live and food, etc. Many people in Haiti lack the necessities of life, like food and water.

Is there a moral obligation to help those who are in more need?

Shankar Vedantam: Very difficult question, Baltimore. As I have said many times before, I think the only thing we can ask of people is to act consciously and deliberately, regardless of what choice they make. If we choose to help the family member in Baltimore, it might mean we are not helping someone in greater need elsewhere in the world. This is not always evidence of moral callousness. But grappling with the dilemma runs the risk of leaving us feeling less certain about our moral decisions than we might otherwise feel, and I for one think that is a good thing.


NY: Gosh, I've missed your Dept. of Human Behavior articles, Shankar!

Shankar Vedantam: Thank you so much, New York! I am currently on leave from the Post on a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. I remain extremely interested in these issues, however, and hope to keep writing about them in the future. For the moment, I plan to use my blog about my book -- -- to discuss these issues.


Laurel: I wrote badly in my other submission. I meant artificial in the sense of an interruption of a person's life as opposed to the ongoing circumstances of it.

Since we seem to be pointing there; based on (my assumptions about) your background, do you think media reports of mass tragedy in foreign countries is proportional to GDP? A train in Japan is much more tragic than a bus in India, let alone a village in sub-Saharan African.

Shankar Vedantam: Indeed, Laurel, this is likely to be the case. The irony is that since disasters are less likely to cause mass suffering in wealthy countries as opposed to poor countries (because better infrastructure can greatly reduce the impact of disasters) there are usually fewer victims in rich countries than in poor countries when tragedy strikes. The irony is that our bias prompts us to regularly care much more about the few than the many ... to care less, in other words, about precisely those people who need our help the most.


Washington, D.C.: You said: "We feel good about saving the individual -- which is good and important to do -- but forget that acting morally requires us to do much, much more. "

And I'd say the inverse is true, too -- we feel bad when we act for the larger cause at the expense of the individual. But latching on to the person who wrote in about the media, no one is ever vilified for saving an individual. Plenty of people are vilified when they don't save the individual -- i.e. when new legislation betters conditions for many, you'll always see a story on the person whom it DOESN'T help, and often times in politics (yeah, I'm tying together all the questions now!) it's that one person it DOESN'T help that can ultimately bring down a candidate, even if his or her work still helped many others.

Shankar Vedantam: This is a profoundly important point, Washington, and why I will never be able to run for office!

Any politician who says no to the suffering individual who stands before him or her will be seen as uncaring -- and it is again because we so highly value our intuitions about good and bad rather than the what the data show are good OUTCOMES and bad OUTCOMES. This is often the source of well-meaning but misguided policy decisions.


Silver Spring, MD: Interesting article. Nicholas Kristoff has also talked about this phenomenon and of course there's the famous Stalin quote (the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of 1000s is a statistic).

One thing you did not address in this article, however, is the relevance of this research to action. For motivating individuals to action of course it is clear that most people are affected by those individual stories which is why charities and journalists use them to reach people. But this is not how mass action should be determined and not how policy made in our names by our government should be determined.

As a US government policy analyst for many years, I have always said that it is my job not to make policy at the individual level but at the aggregate level. So for example, those focus group "what would you do" questions in the article were no-brainers for a wonk like me. My JOB has been to give the greatest good for least resources (and hopefully longest term impact) answer.

It is true that political level impetus to action is often affected by the infamous "CNN effect" and that there is a "squeaky wheel getting the grease" element to some of our work. These are not all together bad because they help connect what govt does to what citizens care about. But day in and day out we must overcome those impulses to try to do the greatest good and to push back against those who are making decisions on simple emotion.

Shankar Vedantam: Thank you, Silver Spring. You are raising an issue that is of great importance, and that is the role of INSTITUTIONS in helping to shape our morality. As individuals, we may always be constrained by our hidden brains, and always choose to act in some ways and not in others. But when we see patterns of behavior, and recognize that we are not always acting in ways that are consonant with our best intentions, we can set up institutions to do what our own intuitions cannot accomplish. I think the world of charity and charitable contributions, but I strongly feel that moral decisions cannot be left to individuals acting on behalf of other individuals. Our brains have simply not been constructed to deal with the complexity and scale of the moral challenges we confront today, but our brains can build institutions that can, in effect, compensate for our blind spots.

This has been a fabulous and thought-provoking discussion. Thank you for all the excellent questions and comments. Please feel free to continue to write to me and raise areas of consensus and disagreement at


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