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The one and the many

We naturally prefer Mother Teresa’s rendering (“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one I will.”) over the version attributed to Stalin (“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is just a statistic.”), though both aphorisms express the same sentiment, now backed up by psychological research and applicable to a wide variety of communications issues.

The evidence, summarized in large part by Professor Paul Slovic in an obscure journal, indicates that while most people care deeply about individuals, we are often numb to the suffering of the many.

In part, it is harder to get our attention for big numbers than for individuals. Evolution wired our brains to detect smaller relative changes more readily than larger ones. Just as  we are less likely to notice more brightness when a light increases from 1,000 to 1,100 lumens than we are to perceive a difference between 100 and 200 lumens, saving one life means more to us than the difference between 1000 lives and 1,100 or 400,000 lives.

Extending this line of reasoning suggests that proportions may be more important than raw numbers. Participants in one experiment were much more likely to support purchasing airport safety equipment when told it was expected to save 95 percent of 150 lives at risk than to support the same equipment purchase when told it would save 150 lives. Obviously, 95 percent of 150 is fewer than 150 — but 95 percent feels like more than just 150.

These statistical lives are in turn much less compelling than real individual lives. In another experiment, participants’ donations were on average twice as large to an individual child suffering from hunger in Mali than to the same organization promising to help save 3 million hungry children in the same African country. The one evoked a much greater outpouring of concern than the many.

Death in Darfur captures only a few minutes from TV news each year and rarely engages the American public. Yet the same nation watched transfixed for two and a half days as rescue workers labored to save baby Jessica McClure, trapped in an abandoned well.

Indeed, individuals are more compelling than even small groups. In the experiment described above, an appeal focused on saving two specific Malian children elicited less support than the effort to save one. Another set of experiments reveal people much more willing to help underwrite life-saving medical treatment for one child than for eight, even though the total cost was said to be the same. Many will go far to help an individual, but it may take only a few, not Stalin’s million, to turn a tragedy into a statistic.

We can feel the pain of individuals, but probably not of groups. Neuroscientists emphasize mirror neurons as the biological basis of empathy. When we see others, we do not merely observe them; our mirror neurons create representations of the others’ actions and emotions in our own brains. We literally feel the others’ suffering in our brain, putting ourselves in their shoes. That is why we wince when we see someone else miss the nail, hammering their thumb instead, and why laughter and tears can be infectious. However, mirror neurons enable us to ape the feelings of other individuals, not of groups; and we have no circuitry with which to “feel” the pain of statistics.

It is those feelings, those emotions, which move us to action. Fail to generate them and we fail to elicit action. Focus on the individual and we win the emotional argument; focus on the many and we risk losing it.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.