Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The boy in the well-2

In this post, I had wondered what was it about ‘boys falling into wells” that had the television channels pitching their tents to provide a minute-by-minute commentary on the rescue effort, when incidents involving lives of greater number of people do not get as much attention. For instance, thousands have died in Myanmar recently in the havoc wreaked by a cyclone. It doesn’t seem to capture so much of media space.

Jonah Lehrer links to a study done by Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, on this subject.

According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don't activate our moral emotions, which are what compel us to act. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can't comprehend suffering on such an unimaginable scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. Or why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine, but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

Or, as Stalin ( the original, not the one in Chennai) is supposed to have said, ““One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic”

Statistics stay silent in us.


Shruthi said...

I was thinking of this just today. The cyclone and the earthquake and the Jaipur bombing, and all that I feel is a cursory "how terrible". But give me the story of a single victim of any of these three tragedies and I am sure to break down.

Raj said...

Yes, Shruthi. This seems to be universal. I am trying to find an explanation why.....

Anonymous said...

The other option is to switch channels whether it is one or many.

Unknown said...

What happens in Darfur or Burma has to be covered by television channels covering the local news ?

Do you like to say that television channels sould be the torch bearers for humanity ?

How does helping one is a crime on Mother Theresa ? You can't understand the simple logic how many a single person can help and "how many other persons can help in single"

The people like always have a great affinity for statistics. If you are running a television channel, I can imagine you ask your reporters to stop covering a site with 100 dead to a new site with 101!!!!

Raj said...

sankar, that's also a good idea.

praada, what's your point?