Read a great column by Clive Thompson in Wired’s September issue on how big numbers (and lack of numeracy there) affects people’s charity decisions.
He studies a troubling paradox in human empathy: We’ll usually race to help a single stranger in dire straits, while ignoring huge numbers of people in precisely the same plight. We’ll donate thousands of dollars to bring a single African war orphan to the US for lifesaving surgery, but we don’t offer much money or political pressure to stop widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur.
The problem isn’t a moral failing: It’s a cognitive one.
Most of us can count to about 7 in an instant. Throw 6 matches on the table and everyone can say instantly that there are 6. Throw 8, and most people will already have to calculate (even if it is a quick 4+4 operation in the back of the head). Throw 83 matches and the answer is “many”.
For some reason, the point Thompson raises about maintaining a grasp of proportion when it comes to large numbers suffering has become more and more visible around us in the recent years:
- 2,974 people died in the infamous terrorist attacks on 9/11. The retaliation in Iraq has now cost 600,000 lives and counting.
- People have donated over a million pounds to support finding Madeleine, despite of the controversy surrounding the poor kid’s dissapearal. Wonder how many million-pound funds are there to support the 2.8 million children under 15 with AIDS?
- As a friend of mine noted, the media coverage as well as his personal feelings were much stronger around Colin McRae’s helicopter crash if compared to the news of 88 people dead in Thai plane crash the same day.
Somehow I think that you don’t really need to be a Bill Gates to optimize your charitable giving to a place where it can fix the most of pain.