why millions of deaths can be “just” a statistic…
According to Eddie Izzard, if you kill someone, that’s murder and you go to jail for the rest of your life. If you kill ten people, you’re sent to Texas where the officials hit you with a brick on the head. Kill twenty people, and the judge will throw you into a mental hospital where you’ll live out your days looking at the world through a barred little window. And anything above that, we can’t handle, acting almost impressed and wondering how anyone could manage a schedule required to kill that many other human beings. And if you think about it, this bit in a comedy sketch was really on to something. We really are very bad at both judging, and punishing crimes like vast toxic spills, or outright genocides like the ones seen in Africa. There’s even a scientific name for this. It’s called the scope-severity paradox, and it predicts strongly negative correlations between the scope of criminal and violent actions, and the severity of the punishments that we feel would be warranted for these crimes.
Of course most politicians and writers are well aware that we’re rather bad at grasping very big numbers, and hence, we see such a prevalence for anecdotes and personal stories when told about a conflict or a problem affecting thousands, if not millions of people. Our limits when it comes to dealing with numbers can often be hijacked by quacks selling fake cures on the basis of testimonials, usually with great success since we’re predisposed to trust anecdotes more than hard data, a habit that takes a lot of training and constant attention to break. In the same vein, we can understand and emphasize with ten people losing their lives, or 20 people getting injured, or even a thousand fellow humans who suffered at the hands of terrorists or a large company robbed into bankruptcy by an unscrupulous CEO. But past that, we grow numb and see the number of those affected rather than our fellow humans, and that number is pretty much meaningless. I could tell you that the worldwide annual death toll from AIDS is around 2 million people. I could also tell you that this is equivalent to every man, woman, and child in the city of Houston, TX, vanishing every year. But that wouldn’t register on that gut-wrenching, emotional level unless I were to show you photos of just a few people dying of AIDS .
And our insensitivity to numbers and the scope of crimes also affects justice systems, kicking in with as few as twenty victims. In a recent series of studies, after being given vignettes about illegal actions of companies that injured a variable number of people, undergraduate students had to decide on the proper jail sentences for the perpetrators. Just as predicted by the scope-severity paradox, the higher the number of victims would go, the shorter the sentences were. For an added bonus, the researchers asked the participants to describe one of the potential victims, noting that those given crimes with a smaller toll could give more details about a person who may be suffering from the crimes, while to those with cases affecting with more people, victims were beginning to blur into faceless numbers and metrics unless given a photo of someone purported to be harmed. Given a person to represent mass suffering, the participants imposed steeper sentences. But that’s in a lab with controlled conditions and double-blind result analysis. What about the justice system itself? Is it prone to the same kind of bias, or are lawyers encouraging victim testimony just engaging in theatrics? After the theoretical trials, the researchers analyzed 136 real tort cases involving toxic spills and found that as the number of victims went up (from one to 32), the awarded payouts tended to go down.
The researchers suggest that giving juries comparative information, or providing more detailed accounts of a crime would lessen the effects of the scope-severity paradox, and that could work quite well in tort cases that would measure guilt in dollars. But it’s harder to see how to counter the paradox when it comes to crimes like genocide, or mass murder. After giving the perpetrator a life sentence or the death penalty, there’s not a whole lot left in the judicial arsenal. And often, genocides are committed by heavily armed nations or groups with no accountability to anyone but themselves, so bringing them to justice is a rather nebulous idea. How would an active government of Sudan, or Rwanda, or the leadership of the Taliban, which is currently in hiding, be shut down and brought to trial? And what would be the punishment? An even more problematic issue could be a focus on civilian casualties during a war on one side over decades of slaughter on the other because having smaller numbers and fresh, concrete cases evokes a stronger feeling of empathy than old, forgotten crimes which are often reduced to a historical footnote. Cold logic would dictate that more anger would be directed at those who leave a higher body count, but in reality, it seems that our minds often work in reverse of that.
See: Nordgren, L., Morris McDonnell, M. (2010). The scope-severity paradox: why doing more harm is judged to be less harmful Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550610382308