Jonah Lehrer writes about the psychological investigation of a problem that journalists, politicians, and lawyers, actors, and many other communicative non-wonks know all too well: that in persuading people to act, a picture is worth a thousand statistics.
Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has demonstrated that suffering on such a epic scale falls into one of the brain's many blind spots. His experiments are straightforward: he asks people how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. For example, Slovic found that when people were shown a picture of a single starving child named Rokia in Mali, they acted with impressive generosity. After looking at Rokia's emaciated body and haunting brown eyes, they donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents to Save the Children. However, when a second group of people were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa – more than three million children in Malawi are malnourished, more than eleven million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance, etc. – the average donation was fifty percent lower.
It seems to me that the principle established, that people are more likely to respond to the well-presented (pictographic, anecdotal, etc.) distress of an individual, or simply to individualized stories, than to dry statistics is obvious, based simply on my experience and knowledge of my own emotions and those of the people I know.
But this certainly explains why, in our politics and in our culture, we're bombarded with individual stories and anecdotes and why we make decisions that, from the standpoint of those who know the statistics, seem irrational. One Willie Horton is worth a thousand papers on the penological experience of Sweden. An Al Gore is going to get more mileage out of a sensationalistic movie than a thousand climatologists discussing actual data and trends, but one photo of a polar bear is more effective still. We're willing to amend state constitutions when we hear of a few property owners in Connecticut who have their property taken for a marina, but a discussion of how eminent domain is actually implemented on a national basis? Hard cases make bad law.
So the next time you see Sally Struthers on television bluescreened over an image of sick African kids, consider that Ms. Struthers may know more about what causes you to respond than you do yourself. You're wired her way.