April 6, 2016 4:00pm
Dana Building, Room 1028
Founder and President of Decision Research; Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon
“Numbers and Nerves: Confronting the Arithmetic of Compassion and the World’s Urgent Problems”
Abstract: A defining element of catastrophes is the magnitude of their harmful consequences. To help society to prevent or mitigate damage from catastrophes, immense effort and technological sophistication are employed to assess and communicate the size and scope of potential or actual losses. This assumes that people can understand the resulting numbers and act on them appropriately.
However, recent research casts doubt on this assumption. Large numbers have been found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). We respond strongly to aid a single individual in need, but often ignore mass tragedies such as genocide or fail to take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses from risks such as climate change and natural disasters. As the numbers get larger we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action. In some cases the numbers convey a false sense of inefficacy, demotivating us from doing the good we are capable of. Biases in decision making compound these problems, leading to actions that contradict our stated values toward protecting lives.
A failure to understand how our minds become insensitive to catastrophic losses of human life and environmental integrity, and a failure to act on this knowledge, may condemn us to continue as passive witnesses to a wide range of atrocities and disasters.