A researcher named Paul Slovic studies human empathy and decision making – and has discovered that we will race to rescue a single stranger in dire straits, while ignoring huge numbers of people in the same plight. Humans are very good at processing the plight of tiny groups of people but horrible at conceptualizing the sufferings of many.
In one of his his experiments – he showed subjects one starving child and asked how much they’d be willing to give to feed her. Then he showed a different group, a picture of 2 children – they gave 15% less! Then he showed them 8 children. 50% less!
Then this Wired article goes back to Bill Gates and his recent mission to tackle third world diseases:
Which brings me back to Gates. The guy is practically a social cripple, and at times he has seemed to lack human empathy. But he’s also a geek, and geeks are incredibly good at thinking concretely about giant numbers. Their imagination can scale up and down the powers of 10 — mega, giga, tera, peta — because their jobs demand it.
So maybe that’s why he is able to truly understand mass disease in Africa. We look at the huge numbers and go numb. Gates looks at them and runs the moral algorithm: Preventable death = bad; preventable death x 1 million people = 1 million times as bad.
We tend to think that the way to address disease and death is to have more empathy. But maybe that’s precisely wrong. Perhaps we should avoid leaders who “feel your pain,” because their feelings will crap out at, you know, eight people.
What we need are more Bill Gateses — people with Aspergian focus, with a direct sensual ability to understand what a million means. They’ve got to be able to envision every angel on the head of a pin. Because when it comes to stopping the mass tragedies of today’s world, we’re going to need every one of them.