The bloodied, dust-covered image of Omran Daqneesh, a 5-year-old Syrian boy from Aleppo whose family home was destroyed in an air strike, is making headlines and heartache in ways that the five-year-old conflict rarely does. The last time this happened was about a year ago, with the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose drowned body washed ashore on the Greek island of Kos. The outpouring that comes following photos such as these would infuriate a utilitarian philosopher — be it Peter Singer or Jeremy Bentham — since why should people be more motivated to care about the tragedy of a single child rather than the 21 million refugees worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes?
According to a new study in Frontiers in Psychology, it’s because people are more biased toward the plight of one person rather than that of a group. The study, lead-authored by psychologist Daffie Konis at Tel Aviv University, follows up previous research indicating that a single victim leads to greater emotional investment and willingness to give to charity than if there are multiple people suffering. Not only that, people are more satisfied with life-saving interventions if fewer people are at risk.
Konis and her team did three experiments to tease out the “one is more valuable than many” reactions. In one experiment with 127 participants recruited online, subjects read a hypothetical story about Dr. Stillman, a dentist who loved to fish. In the story, the doctor decided to take a long-weekend fishing trip and push back the appointments with patients who were waiting to see him. Every participant read three versions of the story: one with two patients, another with three, and a third with ten. The participants then rated how much they thought patients should be compensated for the misdeed. A majority of participants thought that the fewer the patients, the more they should be compensated and the more the dentist should be punished. In a related experiment, 91 subjects read about the story of a financial adviser named Jeff, who read analyst reports saying the stock market was about to drop, but instead of selling off shares, he left the office to hang out with a friend — leading to a 15 percent drop in clients’ portfolios. Instead of each participant reading every story, this time one group read the story with one client losing money, a second with five unrelated clients, and a third with five clients with a joint plan. Similar to the first experiment, participants thought that the one client got more screwed over than the group of clients. Again, the paradox held: Jeff was more guilty when just one person got the bad end of his negligence.
In another, more wickedly designed experiment, 81 undergrads took what they thought was a test of their cognitive ability, after which they received false feedback: some that they did better than their peers, some that they did worse. Then they received a disclaimer about their being deceived: some were told that everybody who took the test got tricked in the same way, others were told only they were duped. Again, participants thought the offense was less immoral and harmful when others were involved. To the authors, the findings suggest a moral judgment bias where “a transgression affecting several individuals was paradoxically judged as less (rather than more) severe and immoral than one affecting a single victim.” This helps to understand why Daqneesh is so affecting: he’s just one victim. Regardless of how moral it is, people are apparently biased to caring more about the sorrow of a single figure than a group. If you do feel stirred to donate, effective altruism is a good place to start.