This week, The Crime Report included a recent study from Social Psychological and Personality Science which found in three different experiments that increasing the number of people victimized by a crime actually decreases the perceived severity of that crime and leads people to recommend less punishment for crimes that victimize more people.
The research entitled The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why Doing More Harm Is Judged to Be Less Harmful was conducted by Loran F. Nordgren and Mary-Hunter Morris McDonnell.
The report was composed of three studies. Each study was summarized in the report:
In Study 1 we found that increasing the number of people victimized by fraud reduced the perceived severity of that crime and led people to recommend a less punitive jail sentence for the perpetrator.
In Study 2 we replicated this effect and found evidence for another implication of the
scope-severity paradox. Participants were more likely to engage in unethical behavior when the consequence of that behavior affects more victims.
Study 3 looked to archival data to test whether the scope-severity paradox occurs outside the laboratory. Examining the punitive damages awards assessed from defendants in toxic tort cases between 2000 and 2009, we found that juries assessed larger punitive damages from defendants whose offense harmed fewer plaintiffs.
The report begins by introducing the concept of "scope insensitivity" or "scope neglect." The report uses the following examples to expound on the theory that people are notoriously insensitive to the magnitude of outcomes. When asked how much people would pay to save 2,000, 20,000, or 200,000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds, participants stated a mean willingness to pay $80, $78, and $88, respectively (Desvousges et al., 1993). Similar research has demonstrated that people were willing to pay only 28% more to protect 57 forest preserves than what they would pay to protect a single preserve (McFadden & Leonard, 1993) and were willing to spend the same amount of money to clean up hundreds of polluted lakes compared to the cleanup of one polluted lake(Kahneman, 1986).
Is it rational to believe that individuals would be willing to pay 10 times or 100 times more to prevent disaster. Don't people think within there means? Most individuals have the means to contribute $80 to protect 200 birds. Is it reasonable to think that an individual would pay $8,000 to protect 200,000 birds?
The question remains, are people less emotional about mass tragedy or are they simply limited or overwhelmed in there ability to address or mitigate a catastrophic event.
To read the full report: http://www.thecrimereport.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Social-Psychological-and-Personality-Science-2010-Nordgren-1948550610382308.pdf