Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

New research sheds light on our reactions to humanitarian crises

Date:
December 22, 2009
Source:
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Summary:
Millions of lives are lost around the world each year to accidents, terrorist attacks, wars, epidemics and natural disasters. What’s more, the prediction is that climate change will increase the number and intensity of some of these events. Newly published research suggests that the way people -- whether members of the public or policy makers -- react when faced with human fatalities is highly dependent on the distribution of death tolls they are typically exposed to.

Millions of lives are lost around the world each year to accidents, terrorist attacks, wars, epidemics and natural disasters. What's more, the prediction is that climate change will increase the number and intensity of some of these events. Newly published research from the ESRC Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution (ELSE) suggests that the way people -- whether members of the public or policy makers -- react when faced with human fatalities is highly dependent on the distribution of death tolls they are typically exposed to.

The findings could have important implications for multi-lateral donors, national governments, aid agencies and the press in terms of planning for, fundraising for, reporting on and responding to such emergencies.

Reactions to these tragic events depend largely on the size of their associated death tolls. A disaster involving millions of victims tends to produce a bigger response than one that impacts on tens of thousands of our fellow humans. Previous research has shown, however, that people tend to show a diminishing sensitivity to the numbers of lives involved. As an event's death toll increases, each additional death seems less shocking, so that, for example, we appear to care less about the last thousand people to die in a large-scale disaster than the first thousand fatalities.

Despite its grave implications, the reason for this tendency has until now not been well understood. Christopher Olivola, a researcher from University College London and ELSE, along with Namika Sagara from the University of Oregon, have published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explaining what may cause such diminishing sensitivity.

The research has demonstrated for the first time that our motivation to act is based on our memory of similar events and a comparative, rather than absolute, evaluation of human death tolls. It suggests that reactions to fatalities are fundamentally relative and dependent on personal history.

According to Drs. Olivola and Sagara, we evaluate the seriousness of a disaster by first drawing upon a sample of comparable events from our memory to obtain a set of comparison death tolls. We might, for example, compare a target event with other disasters that we have seen in the news or heard about from talking to family, friends, or colleagues. Then we compare the target event with all those we have drawn from memory. The ''shock'' associated with a target death toll is simply its relative rank-position within the set of comparison events rather than some fundamental value on a scale of human fatalities. This new research stresses that our responses will be shaped by the environment we live in -- in particular the frequency with which we observe small or large death tolls in the news and in our day-to-day lives.

In a series of studies, Drs. Olivola and Sagara demonstrate that our diminishing sensitivity to human fatalities seems to follow from the fact that death tolls are distributed in such a way that most deadly events involve very few deaths, while a few events involve very large numbers of human fatalities. As they show in one experiment, this sensitivity is malleable and can be altered by exposing people to varying distributions of death tolls.

Another implication of this research is that sensitivity to human fatalities will differ predictably across countries, as a function of the distribution of death tolls they are typically exposed to. In a country, such as the UK, which is unused to mass deaths, a medium-scale disaster will seem really shocking, but the shock value will quickly start to blur as the numbers increase so that large-scale events will seem indistinguishable. However, in a country where mass deaths are more common, a medium-scale disaster may seem less shocking but people will be more sensitive to differences in magnitude between large-scale events because they have observed many more of them.

In line with this prediction, Drs. Olivola and Sagara compared respondents in India, Indonesia, Japan, and the US, and found evidence of greater diminishing sensitivity to fatalities in the latter two countries (which tend to experience relatively fewer large-scale disasters) than in the former two.

"On a theoretical level, this research fundamentally challenges the view that the value we place on human lives is governed by stable underlying disutility functions. On a practical level, it advances our understanding of people's reactions to humanitarian crises and other deadly events. For example, it would seem that wealthy nations which have the resources to help those countries most affected by mass deaths also have populations that are most likely to show a diminishing sensitivity to human fatalities. We hope this knowledge will ultimately help save many lives." explains Dr. Olivola.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). "New research sheds light on our reactions to humanitarian crises." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 December 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091220174835.htm>.
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). (2009, December 22). New research sheds light on our reactions to humanitarian crises. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 17, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091220174835.htm
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). "New research sheds light on our reactions to humanitarian crises." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091220174835.htm (accessed April 17, 2014).

Share This



More Earth & Climate News

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

The Great British Farmland Boom

The Great British Farmland Boom

Reuters - Business Video Online (Apr. 17, 2014) Britain's troubled Co-operative Group is preparing to cash in on nearly 18,000 acres of farmland in one of the biggest UK land sales in decades. As Ivor Bennett reports, the market timing couldn't be better, with farmland prices soaring over 270 percent in the last 10 years. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Small Reactors Could Be Future of Nuclear Energy

Small Reactors Could Be Future of Nuclear Energy

AP (Apr. 17, 2014) After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the industry fell under intense scrutiny. Now, small underground nuclear power plants are being considered as the possible future of the nuclear energy. (April 17) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Change of Diet Helps Crocodile Business

Change of Diet Helps Crocodile Business

Reuters - Business Video Online (Apr. 16, 2014) Crocodile farming has been a challenge in Zimbabwe in recent years do the economic collapse and the financial crisis. But as Ciara Sutton reports one of Europe's biggest suppliers of skins to the luxury market has come up with an unusual survival strategy - vegetarian food. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
How Mt. Everest Helped Scientists Research Diabetes

How Mt. Everest Helped Scientists Research Diabetes

Newsy (Apr. 15, 2014) British researchers were able to use Mount Everest's low altitudes to study insulin resistance. They hope to find ways to treat diabetes. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins