Scope Insensitivity Offers Us Insight Into The Value of A Science of Morality

Scope Insensitivty
The study of scope insensitivity, or scope neglect, may surprise you.

If you were walking along in some hypothetical landscape with a bag of golden coins in one pouch and a sack of apples over your shoulder and you came across one child, destitute and hungry, what would you be willing to offer this one child?   Let’s say you have twenty golden coins and fifty apples.  Would you depart with two golden coins and five apples in the spirit of charity?

Let’s say you would, that this ratio seems fair to you.  After all you have yourself, and perhaps your family to look after, and so returning home with 18 golden coins and 45 apples will leave you and your own little worse off in comparison to the good it could do for the child.  But what if there were twenty children, or 100?  What would you offer them?

Scope Insensitivity

Scope Insensitivity and Charity
Charities are more successful when focusing on the misery of one, than the misery of many.

Studies show that your generosity would be peaked with the one child.  Statistically speaking, you are far more likely to offer up more golden coins and apples to the one child than if there were twenty, or one hundred children.  In fact the larger the number grows the less significance the number seems to have.  This appears to be a remarkable failing of human morality.  When a natural disaster strikes and impacts tens of thousands and the charity hat is passed around the room, it’s more likely to weigh no more, or perhaps even less, than if the same room was collecting on behalf of one victim.

There are several psychological factors are play here; cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, and a simple inability to feel connected to numbers, rather than another human being.  When you see one person in suffering, you see the potential for your own suffering, of that of your children, or loved ones.  This is a vehicle for empathy, one that is derailed when the mind focuses on numbers, which carry little to no stimuli in the emotional sectors of the brain.

“One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are merely a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin, while one of the most deplorable men in human history, was correct about this.  He was a great ‘generator of statistics’ of course, having killed 20 million of his own people.

The below excerpt of an article at huffingtonpost gives insight into one experiment that has shown how Scope Insensitivity operates.  There are numerous studies on the subject, focusing on its impact on a great range of topics, from charity to general economic principles.

…That’s at least the theory, and here’s an experiment Hsee ran to test it. He asked volunteers to imagine that an elementary school principal asked them to donate money so that 20 low-income kindergarteners could get Christmas gifts. The request included a portrait of one of the needy children, a little girl. Some of the volunteers were told: “Please think about all of these 20 children. How much are you willing to donate to help these 20 children?” These volunteers served as controls. Others were also asked this but–before this request–they were told to focus on one child: “How much would you donate to help this one child?” So the only difference was that some volunteers first came up with–and wrote down–a hypothetical amount they would be willing to give to a single needy kindergartener.

These volunteers were more generous in the end. In fact, they contributed almost twice as much as the controls did. And it was clearly because of the focus on one: As Hsee had anticipated, these volunteers gave about as much to one child–the prototype–as the controls did to the entire 20. In other words, the volunteers didn’t respond to the number 20 at all–only to the number 1. And they used this prototypical donation to calculate their total giving. [ Read the full article at ]

Could Our Understanding of Scope Insensitivity Help Us To Make More Moral Decisions?

It is the scientific method that uncovered this cognitive dissonance in the way we operate as a society.  Through this science charities can better appeal to the masses by show casing the plight of one individual, be it the victim of starvation from a drought in Africa, or a Tsunami in Asia, than if they were to focus on the sheer horror of the numbers.  What can you do to help 200,000 people suffering in the wake a catastrophe?  There is a feeling of helplessness and a scale of magnitude the mind cannot grasp.  But show one example, tell the story of that one person’s suffering in intimate detail, and hearts will swell, tears will shed, and dollars will loose from the confines of wallets.

Is Scope Insensitivity Evidence For The Value Of a Science of Morality?

In this way science can assist us with a better understanding of morality.  In another article I tackled the Is-Ought problem put forth by David Hume.  Simply put, that science can tell us how to get what we want, but not what we ought to value.  The example of scope insensitivity approaches the science of morality from a different angle, offering us tools to better understand why we act the way we do, and give us the opportunity to do better.  If we’re not aware of our collective psychological shortcomings when it comes to responding to the suffering of others in the world, there’s little hope we’ll do better in the future.

The below video is a TED talk featuring Sam Harris discussing his ideas on the budding science of morality.  This is a controversial subject, but I find the argument compelling.  Please feel free to leave any comments that come to mind, for or against the utility of this branch of science.

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