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Posts tagged ‘Paul Slovic’

Morality & The Individual: The Role of the Passions in Moral Dilemmas

I never liked moral philosophy, it was strangely passionless. Philosophers spent careers searching for moral truths as if they were hidden on some cosmic shelf next to the transitive property of equality while ignoring the central and obvious fact that morality has to do with the subject and her emotions. Philosophers treated it as a separate entity, something that we can have or lose. But morality is about people, and what role you, the individual, play, matters.

Consider Joshua Greene’s take on the famous trolley problem, an old chestnut from moral philosophy. Most have heard the first version: A trolley is hurling uncontrollably down the tracks, its breaks are failing and nothing can stop it. Ahead is a fork in the tracks. If nothing is done, the trolley will kill five maintenance workers. You have the opportunity to flick a switch and divert the trolley onto another track where it will only kill one maintenance worker. Do you pull the switch? About 95 percent say yes.

Here’s Greene’s scenario: You are standing on a footbridge that overlooks the tracks. Again, a trolley is hurling uncontrollably down the track and will kill five maintenance workers if nothing is done. A fat man stands next to you. If you push him over onto the tracks he will stop the trolley and save the lives of the five maintenance workers. Doing this will also kill the fat man. Do you push him onto the tracks? Greene found that almost nobody say yes.

There are two points to Greene’s hypothetical. The first is that we treat moral dilemmas differently depending on how directly involved we are. When we push the fat man, it feels like we killed him. But we don’t feel like we killed the one maintenance worker when we flick the switch. The second is that we don’t understand moral dilemmas rationally. If we did, we would have no problem saying that we should flick the switch and push the fat man because both result in the same amount of lives saved; we’re not utilitarians.

Greene’s hypothetical doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination these days. Just think about unmanned drones, which have killed scores of people since the United States Military began using them in the mid 90s. Killing someone with a Predator somehow seems easier than killing someone with a gun at point-blank in the same way that killing someone by flicking a switch to divert the trolley is easier than pushing the fat man. In both cases the more removed we are from our actions the less conscience-heavy their consequences are. Predators also force utilitarian questions: what if a solider was killed trying to accomplish a mission a drone could have accomplished?

Adam Smith (along with his fellow Scot David Hume) recognized these moral issues a few centuries ago in his less celebrated but equally insightful The Theory of Moral Sentiments, when he proposed the following: How would the average European feel if he discovered that the entire Chinese empire was swallowed by an earthquake? Sad and sorrowful, but he would nonetheless go on with his work and sleep soundly. But what if he was told that he will lose his little finger the next morning? He wouldn’t sleep a second. And, moreover as Smith wonders, how willing would the man be to trade his finger for all of China?

Smith’s point is that empathy depends on distance. We want to think we are morally sound, but the more accurate picture is that we care more about people close to us, and especially ourselves. Again, we don’t need to travel into our imaginations to understand what Smith was driving at. Just think about disasters of the last decade: Hurricane Katrina; the Tsunami of 2004; Earthquakes in China, Japan and Haiti. Unless you are from New Orléans, have close family from southeast Asia or best friends from central China, Japan and Port-au-Prince, it’s likely that these disasters didn’t boggle your conscience too much; you watched Anderson Cooper do his reporting, gave a few dollars to the Red Cross and showed up for work Monday morning.

On other hand, the most tragic events of the last decade (for those not immediately involved in these horrible disasters), probably only involved one or a few people, the death of a loved one for example. One psychologist who understands our tendency to be affected more by what is apparent – as opposed to what is difficult to imagine – is Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. Slovic devised a simple yet clever experiment to illustrate this. He created two groups and asked each how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. Here was the catch: the first group saw a photo of a starving Malawian child while the second read a series of statistics about starvation in Africa. He found that the group that saw the photo of the Malawian girl donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents. The statistics group, on the other hand, donated about 50 percent lower on average. Riding the same wavelength as Smith, Slovic’s study suggests that empathy increases the closer victim is (either physically or virtually).

What does all this say about morality? That the philosophers had it backwards; our moral deliberations depend on the passions. This point has been made several times in both academia and the popular literature, but it is worth repeating because people will screw up understanding moral rights from wrongs as long as they think of moral truths as immaterial nuggets buried deep in a mountain waiting to be mined. We can use science – cognitive science namely – to understand where our moral intuitions come from to better understand what we ought to value and how we ought to act.

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The Availability Heuristic: Why Your Children Probably Aren’t Going to be Murdered

Journalist Lenore Skenazy is called a number of things: “Americans Worst Mom,” “A Heretic,” and, “Abusive.” Her crime? In 2008 she left her nine-year-old son go home by himself on the New York Subway. Her son’s solo trip was made famous by a New York Sun column written by Skenazy and it’s almost too easy to imagine her critics: up-tight mothers so overly protective of their children that they wouldn’t even think of letting them wait at the bus stop alone. You know, helicopter parents. As one recent article describes, they are the type of parents who “[buy] macrobiotic cupcakes and hypoallergenic socks, [hire] tutors to correct a 5-year-old’s “pencil-holding deficiency,”… [and demand that] nursery schools offer mandarin.”

Can you really criticize overprotective parents?  They are, after all, only trying to ensure the safety of their children. But sometimes the numbers tell a different story. In regard to Skenazy’s “abusive” decision, consider that only about 100 people are abducted by a stranger every year, half of whom are eventually murdered. Factoring in that there are 50 million children in the United States, the annual homicide rate via abduction comes out to be one in a million. In other words, “if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you’d have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years.” Similarly, consider that, “more than twice as many children are hit by cars driven by parents taking their children to school as by other kinds of traffic.” That is, every time a parent drives their children to school the chances that a child gets killed increases.

Unfortunately, the parents don’t usually buy these types of arguments; “those are just the numbers,” they might say, “they miss a larger point: don’t rely on statistics when it comes to your children’s safety.” But my beef isn’t with overprotective parents. The truth is, everybody does a poor job of distinguishing what is actually dangerous from what isn’t. This tendency stems from a cognitive shortcut Kahneman and Tversky call the availability heuristic. Availability describes our tendency to judge the importance or frequency of an event based on how easily the even is brought to mind. For example, in one experiment done by Paul Slovic, participants were asked to estimate the amount of people per 200 million who die annually from drowning, tornadoes, asthma and fireworks. He found that on average people believed that 1684 died from drowning, 564 from tornadoes, 506 from asthma and 160 from fireworks. Reality paints a much different picture: 7380 for drowning, 1886 for asthma, 90 for tornadoes and 6 for fireworks. It is not a coincidence that deaths from fireworks and tornadoes show up on the news more often than deaths from drowning or asthma. And that’s the problem – the media gives a false sense of what is actually dangerous in order to entertain their viewers (us).

There are negative consequences of these attention grabbing tactics. German cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer estimates that the year after the 9-11 attacks, 1,500 people died in car accidents because they chose to drive fearing that their plane might be hijacked. Add that up over the course of a few years and you’ll find that “the number of people who died by avoiding air travels was six times the number of people who died in the airplanes on September 11.” Similarly, did you know that you are eight times more likely to die from walking home drunk than driving home drunk, the chances of getting murdered from hitchhiking is virtually zero, and owning a pool is astronomically more dangerous that owning a gun.

To be sure, the availability heuristic is a vital cognitive resource. It allows us to quickly assess the frequency and importance of an event with little cognitive effort. Sometimes this is a good thing; famine, wars and natural disasters get a lot of media attention for good reasons. But sometimes availability gives us a false sense of reality, which the examples outlined here illustrate.

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