Archive for the ‘Human Behavior’ Category

Dramatic Action + Resolve = Results

Monday, January 5th, 2009

Regular readers of the Washington Post are treated to a recurring column by Shankar Vedantam. Always headlined Department of Human Behavior, Vedantam’s columns present interesting, and often counter-intuitive, results from social science and neuroscience experiments designed to yield insight into, what else, human behavior. I have found Vedantam’s columns to be superbly written.

Today’s column is sub-titled Mass Suffering and Why We Look the Other Way. Vedantam observes

[Obama’s foreign policy team] of 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.

Vedantam then introduces Paul Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon, who has conducted experiments to shed light on why the United States frequently fails to intervene in humanitarian crises and why this failure is likely to continue, even with Obama’s team in place.

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.”

Vedantam describes one of of Slovic’s experiments

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.

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.

Well, in my case, being trained in operations research, the analytical side of my brain is usually in charge, and so I found the conclusions by Slovic to be counter-intuitive.

I think that there are other forces at work here. For example, I think many recent instances of genocide and ethnic-cleansing have occurred in places that are not particularly strategically important to the United States. And many of these recent instances have been perpetrated by, and against, people that – sorry to say – don’t look like the majority of Americans. And, the perpetrators and the victims are often called warring or tribal peoples; sort of savages. I wonder if we view these conflicts as “a way of life”.

The United States has done some heavy lifting in places like Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and so maybe there is a weariness. So why can’t the international community step up to the plate? The United Nations is, of course, a feckless partner when addressing the security concerns of the United States and many of our allies. But why can’t the UN be responsible otherwise? For example, more concerned about European sensibilities regarding conflict on the continent than about mediating and containing a war, the United Nations and the United Nations Security Council’s arms embargo of the former Yugoslavia in 1991 effectively tied one arm of Bosnia and Herzegovina behind its back. Deplorable.

We couldn’t all agree on the threat posed by Sadam or the consequences. But maybe, just maybe, the United Nations can muster the forces needed to combat genocide? Can’t everyone (except maybe a few African governments) agree on the genocide in Darfur, Sudan; that it is bad; and that strong action must be taken? Um, maybe not. In 1994, after the deaths of ten Belgian soldiers in Rwanda, the entire international community pulled out of that country, leaving Tutsi and Hutu moderates to fend for themselves against revenge-minded Hutus. The UN and the US refused to use the term “genocide”. Had they done so, it would have necessitated some type of action. Again, deplorable.

I know where Ms. Rice is coming from. I support Ms. Rice and the tough talk of “dramatic action”. But I disagree that the US should “go down in flames” if necessary. Resolve will see that we do not.

Darfur Poster

Darfur Poster