This post is about refugees, but I’ll start this narrative with the slightly overused story of a mildly famous experimental survey.
There were once three survey questions, each presented to three different groups.
Group 1: What would you pay to save two thousand birds from drowning in an oil slick?
Group 2: What would you pay to save twenty thousand birds from drowning in an oil slick?
Group 3: What would you pay to save two hundred thousand birds from drowning in an oil slick?
Presented with all three questions, no doubt, you’d answer each one with increasingly large sums of money, yet still, it is unlikely that you would pay 100 times as much to save 100 times as many birds.
The subjects without any knowledge of the other questions, however, responded in a seemingly shocking manner.
Group 1 (to save 2,000 birds): $80 each (average)
Group 2 (to save 20,000 birds): $78 each (average)
Group 3 (to save 200,000 birds): $88 each (average)
Essentially no difference between two thousand and two hundred thousand.
It is theorised that this is because, when presented with such individual questions, we conjure up a mental image of one, poor, helpless, oil-soaked bird. Based on this, we decide on an arbitrary number of cash we’d pay to save this poor, helpless animal – just enough to give us a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. This is called Scope Insensitivity (or Scaling Bias), and, as the name suggests, we do it because we are simply unable to scale. We are unable to truly imagine as many as two thousand birds, let alone one hundred times that.
While the death of migratory birds is something to lose sleep over, it pales in comparison to the deaths of migratory people. The UNHCR says that 2,500 refugees had drowned on their way to Europe this year before the month of June had even begun. This is clearly tragic, but if it had been, say, 250,000 people who had drowned. Would we take any more notice of a quarter million?
Being unable to scale is interesting cocktail chat when you’re talking about birds, but people? Despite the catastrophe, many of our governments are doing very little. Here in the ‘developed’ world we have abundance, yet 86% of Syrian refugees are living in the developing world.
With 32,000 fleeing through Syria’s borders each day, can we really afford our Scope Insensitivity?
Melissa Fleming TED Talk
Further Reading – Economic Preferences or Attitude Expressions?: An Analysis of Dollar Responses to Public Issues
Refugee Intake by Country