Scope Insensitivity

by Introduction9th Sep 20145 comments



by Eliezer Yudkowsky, originally on LessWrong

Once upon a time, three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2000 / 20000 / 200000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups respectively answered $80, $78, and $88 [1]. This is scope insensitivity or scope neglect: the number of birds saved - the scope of the altruistic action - had little effect on willingness to pay.

Similar experiments showed that Toronto residents would pay little more to clean up all polluted lakes in Ontario than polluted lakes in a particular region of Ontario [2], or that residents of four western US states would pay only 28% more to protect all 57 wilderness areas in those states than to protect a single area [3].

People visualize "a single exhausted bird, its feathers soaked in black oil, unable to escape" [4]. This image, or prototype, calls forth some level of emotional arousal that is primarily responsible for willingness-to-pay - and the image is the same in all cases. As for scope, it gets tossed out the window - no human can visualize 2000 birds at once, let alone 200000. The usual finding is that exponential increases in scope create linear increases in willingness-to-pay - perhaps corresponding to the linear time for our eyes to glaze over the zeroes; this small amount of affect is added, not multiplied, with the prototype affect. This hypothesis is known as "valuation by prototype".

An alternative hypothesis is "purchase of moral satisfaction". People spend enough money to create a warm glow in themselves, a sense of having done their duty. The level of spending needed to purchase a warm glow depends on personality and financial situation, but it certainly has nothing to do with the number of birds.

We are insensitive to scope even when human lives are at stake: Increasing the alleged risk of chlorinated drinking water from 0.004 to 2.43 annual deaths per 1000 - a factor of 600 - increased willingness-to-pay from $3.78 to $15.23 [5]. Baron and Greene found no effect from varying lives saved by a factor of 10 [6].

A paper entitled Insensitivity to the value of human life: A study of psychophysical numbing collected evidence that our perception of human deaths follows Weber's Law - obeys a logarithmic scale where the "just noticeable difference" is a constant fraction of the whole. A proposed health program to save the lives of Rwandan refugees garnered far higher support when it promised to save 4,500 lives in a camp of 11,000 refugees, rather than 4,500 in a camp of 250,000. A potential disease cure had to promise to save far more lives in order to be judged worthy of funding, if the disease was originally stated to have killed 290,000 rather than 160,000 or 15,000 people per year. [7]

The moral: If you want to be an effective altruist, you have to think it through with the part of your brain that processes those unexciting inky zeroes on paper, not just the part that gets real worked up about that poor struggling oil-soaked bird.

[1] Desvousges, W. Johnson, R. Dunford, R. Boyle, K. J. Hudson, S. and Wilson K. N. (1992). Measuring non-use damages using contingent valuation: experimental evaluation accuracy. Research Triangle Institute Monograph 92-1.

[2] Kahneman, D. 1986. Comments on the contingent valuation method. Pp. 185-194 in Valuing environmental goods: a state of the arts assessment of the contingent valuation method, eds. R. G. Cummings, D. S. Brookshire and W. D. Schulze. Totowa, NJ: Roweman and Allanheld.

[3] McFadden, D. and Leonard, G. 1995. Issues in the contingent valuation of environmental goods: methodologies for data collection and analysis. In Contingent valuation: a critical assessment, ed. J. A. Hausman. Amsterdam: North Holland.

[4] Kahneman, D., Ritov, I. and Schkade, D. A. 1999. Economic Preferences or Attitude Expressions?: An Analysis of Dollar Responses to Public IssuesJournal of Risk and Uncertainty, 19: 203-235.

[5] Carson, R. T. and Mitchell, R. C. 1995. Sequencing and Nesting in Contingent Valuation SurveysJournal of Environmental Economics and Management, 28(2): 155-73.

[6] Baron, J. and Greene, J. 1996. Determinants of insensitivity to quantity in valuation of public goods: contribution, warm glow, budget constraints, availability, and prominence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2: 107-125.

[7] Fetherstonhaugh, D., Slovic, P., Johnson, S. and Friedrich, J. 1997. Insensitivity to the value of human life: A study of psychophysical numbingJournal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14: 238-300.


Part of Introduction to Effective Altruism

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:05 AM
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The idea of scope insensitivity is interesting. I wonder if income has any impact on scope insensitivity. For example, in the drowning birds scenario, do people give the amount they they feel they can spare at the moment? Presumably this amount does not shift much month to month and therefore wouldn’t change with the increase in need. From a fundraising perspective, this concept is helpful. A campaign to put one person experiencing homelessness in an apartment would do just as well as a campaign to get a group of people in apartments.

The concept of giving enough to get the warm glow is interesting.

Many people tithe. We give a set percent (usually 10%) of our income. The tithe comes first, off the top. It's not for a warm glow. Maybe duty??? Sometimes it actually hurts and there is definitely not a warm glow at those times. EG I have to give the 10% but that means my kids can't do some activity they want, or get those cool shoes that everybody else has.

While I have experienced the warm glow, I've also experienced the pain. Also, the number of birds or human lives saved won't influence me. Not because I'm insensitive, but because 10% controls the amount I give. I am not saying that I'm more sensitive than others. I just don't respond to requests like that. I do an annual giving plan and usually stick pretty close to it. It's part of the monthly budget with a different charity (or two or three) in the budget each month.

The concept of tithe comes from the Torah, but it some people apply it outside of the religious setting.

FYI there are some missing spaces in front of italicized words in this article, and possibly others. Feel free to delete this comment when it's resolved.

Numbers and perspectives around statistics could make a person doubt if any help is going to make a change. A cold heart would see the beneficial around a factible cause and not for a lost one.

Altruism sometimes can be compered with a sport-team, if your cause is known and crucial, it could get far away from baseline to make a real change by the interest and funding from people around the world, nevertheless, other causes could only be part of an idiosyncrasy from least fortunate people or situations.

This raises the questions, how can we make altruism from any cause a real enterprise? Are the numbers more important than the good heart?

Besides any political party, helping by long lasting actions such as teaching, promoting health, feeding, democracy, etc. those are what we should first finance with troops of multidisciplinary professionals.