Scope Neglect: We don’t get big numbers

How much would you donate to save 2,000 migratory birds from drowning in oil ponds?

How about to save 20,000 birds? 200,000?

In one study, three groups were asked these three questions. Their answers were, respectively, $80, $78, $88. The group asked to save 20,000 birds estimated they’d give less than the group asked to save 2,000. This displays a cognitive bias known as scope neglect — we humans have a hard time emotionally representing large quantities.

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman vividly explained that the story evokes the image of “an exhausted bird, its feathers soaked in black oil, unable to escape.” It’s to that one bird that we attach our emotional response and willingness to donate. It’s just too difficult for us to imagine another 1,999 or 199,999 more birds in that dire situation.

Donors want to make a difference

Psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon took this to the next level. In one study he presented the story of a young girl, Nayani, dying from starvation, and asked how much volunteers would donate to save her. Another group was presented the same story, but in the context of more children whom they could not save. Even though the action of both groups was identical — save Nayani from starvation — the second group gave about half as much money as the group that saw only the one girl.

In another study by Slovic, a depression in giving was shown when just expanding the story from one needy child to two needy children.

Speak to the imagination

Tragically, we have a hard time processing the abstraction of large numbers and our emotions have a hard time combating the cynicism of not being able to save everyone. This is what the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert referred to as “the arithmetic of compassion” in his poem “Mr. Cogito Reads the Newspaper”.

The poem compares a news story about yet another 120 soldiers killed in battle to the grim details of a lone murderer. One line laments that the many soldiers killed “don’t speak to the imagination.” They don’t provide the clear image of the “feather soaked in black oil” or the saveable hungry child.

Surely we all want to think big. We want to stop hunger. End homelessness. We all wanna save the world. But to truly motivate donors to respond, we first have to “speak to the imagination” with a story of one person saved, one life changed.