Consider one billion animals. Now consider one trillion animals. The second number is vastly higher. However, it is difficult for many people to have a clear idea of what the magnitude of that difference is. As a result of this, we often fail to assess properly what we should do when large numbers of individuals are affected.
This is due to a cognitive bias called scope insensitivity. It is also known as scope neglect. It means we don’t realize the real scope of a certain quantity. So when we compare two different quantities we fail to notice the difference between them. This usually happens when those quantities are very large.
Scope insensitivity causes people not to adjust their valuation of an issue in proportion to the size or scale of it.1 Scope insensitivity especially impairs our judgments about helping animals because of the massive amount of animal suffering and death.
Scope insensitivity probably occurs due to our inability to visualize, or otherwise imagine, such large numbers. When we are not able to visualize a situation where a large number of individuals need our help, we must instead understand it at a more abstract quantitative level. This rarely triggers a strong emotional reaction in us, such as we get when we help a particular number of individuals we can visualize. Importantly from an ethical standpoint, it has been argued that too little emotional involvement can lead to a failure to react.2 Because of that, scope insensitivity may contribute to non-optimal decision outcomes in situations where the goal is to improve the situation of as many individuals as possible.3 In fact, sometimes those decisions are very poor ones.
In the original study that assessed this phenomenon, different groups of people were asked how much they would pay to save either a group of 2,000 birds, another of 20,000 birds, or a group of 200,000 birds from drowning in ponds polluted with oil. Assuming people’s intention was truly to help as many birds as possible, they should value each of their lives equally. If they were looking clearly at the issue, we would expect them to be willing to pay 10 times as much for the second group as for the first group, and 100 times as much for the third group as for the first group. In fact, the results showed that willingness to pay did not increase in proportion with the number of birds saved.4 Participants were willing to pay $80 to save 2,000 birds. They were willing to pay $78 to save 20,000. That is, 2$ less to save 18,000 more individuals. Finally, they were willing to pay $88 to save 200,000. Thus, only 8$ extra to help 180,000 more birds. That suggests that participants valued each individual bird less the more of them there were to save (4, 0.39, and 0.044 cents, respectively).
This is a clear case of scope insensitivity. The fact that participants were only willing to pay $80 to save a group of 2,000 birds is very problematic in its own right. Yet, the scope insensitivity they showed is also worrisome, given how it impairs our moral judgment when confronted when very large numbers of individuals in need of our help.
One explanation of how scope insensitivity occurs has to do with how we often represent things in order to understand them, which is called representativeness heuristic (heuristics, often referred to as “mental shortcuts,” are ways to easily solve problems, especially when we have to make a decision). The representativeness heuristic describes people’s tendency to imagine a simple, normal example of the type of problem being presented to them, rather than picturing all the specific details of the case in question, which may be very complex. Like all heuristics, this is can be a useful mental shortcut, since it reduces problems to a more manageable size, thereby simplifying our information processing and decision-making efforts.
However, as the example above shows, this mechanism can be inappropriate to use in many situations. In the example, people tended to imagine or visualize roughly the same thing, so their natural empathy was stimulated to roughly the same degree by all of them, despite the significant differences in the three numbers.5
If a person’s aim is to feel good, or to avoid feeling bad, through some altruistic behavior (like a charitable donation), they do not have an incentive to check whether they are actually doing some good or just seeming to do so – because it feels the same in each case and that is their bottom line.6 In addition, being confronted with too much suffering can lead to what is often called the collapse of compassion, a defense mechanism that reduces or eliminates our sensitivity to the harms others suffer when we are faced with massive amounts of suffering.7 As a result, people will tend not to do the cognitive work of adjusting for scope neglect.
That being said, part of the problem may consist in people simply failing to notice their bias, meaning that they would adjust their decisions if only they were informed about its existence.8
In addition, due to the key role of emotions in moral intuitions and in decision-making processes,9 it has been shown that raising emotional concern for individual victims of large-scale suffering increases overall concern. It has also been shown that personal stories and visual images motivate helping responses more than using abstract numerical figures and statistics. These vivid descriptions of single individuals in need can be useful to keep emotions aroused when large numbers of individuals are concerned.10 This is a way of trying to adjust advocacy to the existence of cognitive biases. It is problematic, however, as we are not always going to be able to do this. For instance, we may not be able to provide such stories when we consider possible new forms of suffering in the future.
Scope insensitivity is especially problematic when it biases us away from helping animals in the wild. There is an astronomical amount of suffering constantly going on in the natural world. For example, the leading estimate as to the number of insects in the wild is 1018.11 A majority of these animals die a painful death in their first days of life. This amount of suffering simply dwarfs any that we are used to dealing with or thinking about.
In order to react properly to these magnitudes, we should be prepared to adjust our initial emotional reaction based on our more abstract understanding of the quantity. For example, we can try to imagine the largest number of insects that we can and then try to remember how much bigger of an issue it is than we can possibly imagine.
The equivalent suffering of each individual should be given the same consideration. Unfortunately, however, the valuations of individual lives and suffering are often guided by moral intuitions which are highly influenced by non-rational mechanisms and emotions that can lead to partial judgments. As we have seen here, one of these mechanisms is scope insensitivity.
Hence, we cannot rely solely on our more immediate decision-making processes when making moral judgments involving large numbers of individuals. We must bear this in mind and try to adjust for the errors our decision-making process will run into because of this bias.
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