On caring more for the few than the many.

Do we care more about the many or the one?

It has long been a complaint of mine that the horrific deaths of individuals in Western countries due to terrorism attacks or other disasters receive much more attention and coverage in the media compared to terror or natural disaster-related deaths in non-Western countries – even if the total number of deaths is much lower in the Western countries.

For example, media extensively covered the 2015 Paris terror attacks targeting Charlie Hebdo that killed 17 and injured many other civilians. In the aftermath, 3.7 million people marched to show unity in the face of terrorism. At almost the same moment, approximately 2,000 people were murdered in Nigeria in an attack by Boko Haram militants in the town of Baga. Yet the media coverage of the latter was remarkably less than the reports on Paris.

All of these victims are humans. They all have families, and a future that was erased by factors beyond their control. Why the disparity?

A key difference between the incidents is the access to information. Access in Boko Haram territory is limited for journalists as they are often targeted by the militants. Attacks have further limited connections that are already a struggle for most in the region, leaving fewer avenues to access internet or other communications in the almost-totally Boko Haram-controlled region. Surely this autocratic control is an even more important reason for the world to take notice of this crisis, right? Apparently no. This stands in stark contrast to hyper-connected Paris. As such the quality and personalization of information from both events is very different. The world was able to watch and imagine being in Paris as the events unfolded.

Some commentators have labelled this as an empathy gap. A hot-cold empathy gap refers to how people consistently underestimate the impact of visceral drivers on their own reactions, behaviours, and preferences. Our feelings and attitudes are highly impacted by our emotional states. How this can be interpreted is that our association with Paris as a safe city in contrast to scary terrorist attacks creates a sense of shock and fear. This is as opposed to mass killing in Boko-Haram controlled areas, a place that is already scary for many of us to think about, might appear less shocking and create a less intense emotional reaction. Strong emotional response to Paris and a less strong response to other terrorist events around the world could drive our attention differently.

Scientists blame our brains. We perceive victims differently based on if they are the same or different to us – or “ingroup vs. outgroup”. Similarity can be determined by geography, culture, religion, gender, etc. Media favouring of the 2017 London terror attacks could be because the victims are so relatable to much of the Western world. Cognitive neuroscientist Emile Bruneau from MIT found that when showing a group of Arabs and Israelis news reports about attacks and suffering in their own countries, the areas of the brain associated with empathy were activated. When showing them similar news reports about suffering in South American countries, these same areas of the brain were not engaged. Bruneau argues that just because we have a stronger cognitive reaction to seeing harm come to members of our ingroup doesn’t mean we don’t care about victims in our outgroup altogether. Furthermore, our classification of different peoples as ingroup or outgroup is fluid and context dependent.

There maybe some similarity between the ingroup vs. outgroup phenomenon with the Identifiable Victim Effect. This cognitive bias prompts us to be more helpful to “actual people” with a face and name (and more familiar to you) than to anonymous victims. This often aggregates to providing more aid to a specific, identifiable person rather than a vaguely defined group.  Research has found that images and representations are more effective at eliciting response compared to abstract statistics. The identifiable victim brings us one step close to the suffering of the individual in question, often evoking narrative tools that conjure up emotional reactions on our end. I found a very compelling example of Identifiable Victim Effect here (5 min read in Psychology Today).

It’s not just about terrorist events, our cognitions apply this sense-making technique to natural disasters too. Research by Jacoba Urist found that American media attention correlated with geographic proximity to the U.S. and the number of American tourists who had visited the country in question. Urist uses the example of a 1976 Guatemalan earthquake with 4,000 fatalities accrued a third of the media coverage of an Italian earthquake with 1,000 deaths.

This effect even impacts our donation behavior. Logic would perhaps indicate that our willingness to donate would being proportional to the overall need – for example, I’d donate more if I knew 100 people needed help compared to just one person. In reality, we often see the opposite. Large numbers become incomprehensible to grasp, and fall into abstraction in our minds. This cognitive bias is known as scope neglect or scope insensitivity, when the valuation of the problem does not expand in a multiplicative relationship to its size. We can’t verify that all 100 people need help, or  maybe we feel now our ability to help is diminished by the sheer scale of the need, but we can certainly relate to the one in need. Christopher Hsee from Chicago’s Booth School of Business tested this bias in the following experiment:

“He asked volunteers to imagine that an elementary school principal asked them to donate money so that 20 low-income kindergarteners could get Christmas gifts. The request included a portrait of one of the needy children, a little girl. Some of the volunteers were told: “Please think about all of these 20 children. How much are you willing to donate to help these 20 children?” These volunteers served as controls. Others were also asked this but—before this request—they were told to focus on one child: “How much would you donate to help this one child?” So the only difference was that some volunteers first came up with—and wrote down—a hypothetical amount they would be willing to give to a single needy kindergartener.”

Those who were asked to focus on one child were more generous, they contributed twice as much as those who were told to focus on all 20 children. Those focusing on one child gave as much to that one child as those in the other group gave to all 20 children.

It’s like Mother Teresa’s famous quote: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

What can we do about it?

Although news is generally depressing, communicate with your news outlets that you’d like to see a balance of local and international stories. Tell them about the need to emphasize the similarities of those your read about in the news to the outlet’s readership demographics. The news industry is also a business – show them that there is a demand to stay updated on events in areas further away. As for your usual news outlets: perhaps hunt a littler deeper. Ask yourself what is really different between you and those individuals in far away places.

Understand this is a cognitive bias that impacts us all. This means that this is the frame of mind that even policy-makers and government officials can succumb to, however strong they might subscribe to utilitarian ethics. Look at proposed policies with a critical eye and try to think if it really is the best outcome, not just one that benefits the ingroup.

Perhaps with more self-awareness as individuals and a society we can continue to craft a world that feels more united.




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