Katy Milkman: On October 14th, 1987, Jessica McClure was toddling around her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas. Then suddenly, every parent’s nightmare became a reality. The 18-month-old tumbled into an abandoned water well shaft on the property. Jessica was trapped more than 20 feet below ground. Authorities and local volunteers launched a massive rescue effort.
Speaker 2: Jessica is 22 feet underground, crying but still alive …
Katy Milkman: Understandably, national media attention was glued to the story. A slew of reporters documented the ongoing rescue efforts for all of America and the world to see. At one point, rescuers lowered a microphone down the well pipe, and they heard Jessica singing, a hopeful sign. The rescue team drilled a shaft parallel to the well where Jessica was trapped and then drilled horizontally to reach the toddler. Finally, after 58 agonizing hours, the rescue team pulled baby Jessica from the well to safety. She was in serious but stable condition. Donations to the McClure family came pouring in, and eventually a trust fund was established for Jessica with a total of more than $700,000.
This dramatic story has a happy ending, but it also illustrates the tendency we have to open our hearts and dedicate our attention and other resources to a specific individual or small group in need when we hear their story, even when we’re aware that we could probably help more people more efficiently by focusing resources on other problems. In this episode, we’ll explore different ways we tend to be captivated by individuals and their stories and become numb to large numbers. And I’ll speak to my Wharton colleague Deborah Small about research she and others have done about these tendencies and why they arise.
I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories that illustrate quirks of human nature, and then we explore the latest research and behavioral science to help you make better judgements and avoid costly mistakes.
There’s a famous photograph. Maybe you know it. It was taken in 1936 during the Great Depression. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of a migrant farm worker and her children. The mother is in the foreground of this black-and-white photo.
Carol Quirke: So as a viewer, you’re very close to this woman and her expression. The mother is holding a baby in her arms. The baby’s head is close to the mother’s breast.
Katy Milkman: This is Carol Quirke. She’s a professor of American studies at SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island.
Carol Quirke: And I’m a historian who’s very interested in the political power of photographs.
Katy Milkman: There are two more children in this photo, one resting on each of their mother’s shoulders. Their faces turned away from the camera.
Carol Quirke: And so that image of the three children and their mother, a beautifully composed shot, where you’re forced to confront the woman whose expression is so incredibly powerful as well. She’s holding up her chin with her hand. You have a sense of desperation and concern in her eyes, but there’s also this real sense of resolve in her face at the same time. And I think the ambiguity of that shot is very powerful. It’s just a gorgeous shot as well. I mean her skin on her chest really glows. So you can tell that she sort of covered herself most of the time. Whereas the labor that she did is inscribed on her arms, which are much darker. She’s only 32 years old, but her arms look a lot older. They’ve got age spots and they’re kind of crepey, even though she's so very young.
Katy Milkman: The photographer was Dorothea Lange. The image came to be known as Migrant Mother. It’s one of the most reproduced images in the world. Carol Quirke wrote a biography of Lange, who documented the working conditions of migrant farm laborers in the 1930s, and who was no stranger to hardship herself.
Carol Quirke: Dorothea Lange has a very incredible biography, and it includes a lot of pain in her early life. She was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, and for the first years of her life had a really comfortable middle-class existence.
Katy Milkman: But Lange got polio at age seven and was left with permanent foot damage. When she was 12, her father left her family, so she and her mother relocated to New York and lived in the Lower East Side. It was the most congested square mile in the world in the early 1900s.
Carol Quirke: So I think she herself was really troubled and yet ultimately kind of clawed her way out of that by becoming a commercial portraitist. She worked for the famous photographer Arnold Genthe, who was both a portraitist and also a documentary photographer. Worked for a number of other photographers in New York City and then with a friend decided to go to California. Within a year, she had set up a studio in one of the most elite districts in San Francisco. So I think she’s incredibly ambitious. I think she’s a risk-taker, and I think the pain that she experienced individually allowed her, especially because of her ability, to take portraits to really engage with people. She had the ability to capture people’s pain and to translate it but also to show people’s strength at the same time.
Katy Milkman: California had particularly challenging conditions for migrant farm workers during the Depression.
Carol Quirke: There’s such a rosy picture of California, which the state itself promoted towards the end of the 19th century. But the reality for farm workers, particularly migrant farm workers, was quite abysmal. We have this kind of Jeffersonian ideal of the family farmer who’s independent and self-reliant, and American democracy is sort of dependent on this image that was sketched out in the 1700s. But the reality is for many farmers in the South were sharecroppers or tenant farmers, coming out of the system of slavery in the 19th century. And in California, there were particularly exploitative systems, as well. There were massive strikes in California over the decade of the 1930s. Some of the biggest strikes happen in cotton but also in fruit farming. And there was virtually no national news coverage of it. So I think Californians understood very well what was going on. But I think that the situation might’ve been a little obscure for the rest of Americans.
Katy Milkman: Dorothea Lange was tasked with documenting the lives of farm workers across the country. She worked for the Resettlement Administration, a government agency that attempted to address the workers’ concerns.
Carol Quirke: So Dorothea Lange is one of 20 plus photographers who took photographs for the Resettlement Administration. And she worked from 1935 until about 1939. They would be told to go into a particular region and to document the problems that farmers or residents in a particular community were facing.
Katy Milkman: California began to set up migrant camps in the mid-1930s. Lange and her husband were central in communicating the importance of supporting these camps.
Carol Quirke: She took these incredibly evocative photographs, both of the horrific conditions of people stuck on the road with no housing whatsoever, people working in the fields. She took photographs of the work processes.
Katy Milkman: Lange was driving home to San Francisco one day in March of 1936 after a month-long trip taking photos throughout California and Utah.
Carol Quirke: So she was about five hours, six hours from home when she passed by a sign on the road that said "pea-pickers camp." And she just kept on going because everything was packed up, she was on her way home, but about 20 miles past that sign decided that she had to go back.
Katy Milkman: At that camp, Lange met a migrant farm worker named Florence Owens Thompson. Thompson was originally from Oklahoma, but she’d been living in California for years.
Carol Quirke: Thompson was really in dire straits at the point at which this photograph was taken. She had at that point seven kids. She had lost a husband early in the 1930s. But by the time Lange met her, she was remarried and had this young baby. She had been a migrant worker from the time at which she first got to California in the 1920s. She harvested peaches. She worked in sawmills. She picked cotton. She was a hundred-pound woman. She picked more than many of the men.
So when Lange had met her, her family had just come out of the Imperial Valley looking for work and unable to find work because there’d been snow in that valley on the cotton. So they made it to pick peas in Nipomo, and the rains totally created what’s called a rust blight on the peas, and so there was absolutely no work. And so she was stuck in a camp with close to 3,000 other people who had come to work but couldn’t find it. And further complicating things was the fact that the car was broken down at this point in time. And so they were stuck in this camp when Lange shows up. And it was a horrible day. It was drizzling.
Katy Milkman: Lange captured only seven images. All of them were of Thompson and her family. When Lange returned to her studio in San Francisco, she immediately developed the negatives and quickly shared the prints with The San Francisco News. By the next day, two images were printed in the paper, and the portrait that would come to be known as Migrant Mother was printed the day after that. The response to the photos was swift.
Carol Quirke: By the next day, federal officials were pushing California relief officials to step in and to address problems in the camp. So about 2,000 pounds of food were brought into the camp immediately. And state officials made a commitment to care for the migrant workers who were there because they were basically stuck there until the next crop came up, which was going to be another six to eight weeks. Prior to this point, there was so much vigilante justice and so much discrimination against migrant workers connected to strikes in California. And so once that photograph was published, people living in the area, the migrants in the area, basically could let their guard down and know that there were sort of eyes on the area. They didn’t have to fear extralegal violence either from the state or from these vigilante groups. So that was really critical.
Katy Milkman: The Resettlement Administration, which had since been renamed the Farm Security Administration, used these photos to build broader political and financial support for the plight of migrant farm workers in the U.S. Ironically, Thompson and her children didn’t receive any of the aid that came to the camp.
Carol Quirke: Because her family members actually saw the image and went and scooped up the family. So she had family members who lived within a hundred-mile radius who came to help her.
Katy Milkman: While the image brought a spotlight and support to many migrant workers, Florence Thompson wasn’t happy about the photograph.
Carol Quirke: Family members described her as feeling that it was a curse. She told a reporter in 1978 that she wanted money from the photograph. Of course, this is not a photograph that anyone pays money for. The federal government owned the rights to the photograph. And so her anger probably attached to her shame at feeling vulnerable marked her relationship to the photograph. But at the end of her life, when she was dying, her family was able to raise some $35,000 for her care when they put out a plea.
And she received money from people all over the country because people so identified with that photograph. And so the children have said that it caused them to re-evaluate the photograph and to not understand it in the harsh terms that they had understood it in. They actually put “Migrant Mother” on her tombstone. There has been a criticism that has lasted 30 or 40 years at this point that sees documentary images exploitative of their subjects, that sees a middle-class that looks at these images just so they can feel better about themselves. I think instead that Lange asks us to consider with her photographs what happens when people are not cared for.
Katy Milkman: Dorothea Lange died in 1965. Florence Owens Thompson passed away in 1983. But Lange’s 1936 portrait of Thompson remains one of the most iconic images of the Great Depression, and it’s still widely displayed today.
Carol Quirke: That particular photograph has come to stand for a moment in time when the federal government actively engaged on behalf of the U.S. citizens, because of the economic trauma of that time. Documentary photographs—they touch us individually, they touch us emotionally—are often woven into social movements or efforts at reform, and certainly Lange’s images were.
Katy Milkman: Carol Quirke is a professor of American studies at SUNY Old Westbury and the author of Eyes on Labor and Dorothea Lange, Documentary Photography, and the 20th Century: Reinventing Self and Nation. You can find links in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
Migrant Mother is arguably one of the most famous photographs ever taken. Lange captured emotion on film and elicited a strong reaction from American media and from federal and state governments. And yet the plight of thousands of migrant workers was well-known in California before the photo was published.
So why did one image of one small family in need result in such a dramatic shift in support for the migrant workers in the camp? My colleague Deborah Small is here to talk about how people tend to empathize more with a single identifiable person or small group, and how we tend to disengage when the focus is less personal—simply statements about facts or general conditions that many are facing. Deb is a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Her expertise is in charitable giving, emotion, and consumer judgment.
Hi, Deb, thank you so much for being here today.
Deborah Small: Thanks so much for having me.
Katy Milkman: I’m wondering if, first, you could explain the identifiable-victim effect. What is it?
Deborah Small: So the identifiable-victim effect refers to this tendency for people to react empathically, compassionately, strongly to a specific person in need as compared to more statistical victims. So you can think about the reaction to the latest kidnap victim who’s portrayed on TV, or a picture of a refugee that captures the media and society’s attention and also tends to attract a lot of aid, right? So people tend to open not just their eyes, but they open their wallets and donate money when they learn about a specific person in need. And yet there’s, of course, millions of people in need all the time, these more hidden victims around the world that we don’t feel the same compassion toward. So there’s a great thought experiment by the philosopher Peter Singer that I love to paraphrase. So Singer says, “Imagine you’re walking to work one day and you pass a pond, and you notice that there’s a small child in the pond who’s clearly drowning. And you’re right there. You can jump in the pond and save this child, but it’s not without cost, right? You’re probably going to ruin your shoes, and you might be a little bit late to work. So should you do it? Should you jump in the pond?” Everybody says yes to this thought experiment. I’ve asked it in studies. I asked my students in class. There’s just no question that you have a moral obligation to jump in that pond and save the child. But then as Singer points out, we know there’s many ways to save life for a roughly equivalent amount of money, right? Several hundred dollars, maybe the cost of a pair of shoes or whatever time costs you, being late to work. There’s a lot of ways to save life that are relatively inexpensive. And yet we don’t feel that same urgency or that same moral responsibility for those lives, right? They’re not right in front of us. They’re sort of dehumanized, if you will. They’re far away. You don't see the imagery. You don’t feel that emotional tug.
Katy Milkman: What’s your favorite study that you’ve done or that someone else has done demonstrating the identifiable-victim effect?
Deborah Small: So one is we worked with the organization Save The Children. This is many years ago. This is George Loewenstein and Paul Slovic and I, and we created some marketing materials to see how best we could promote this cause and get people to donate money. And so we had different versions of these marketing materials. We had one version that simply showed a picture of a little girl. So this was a picture that they displayed on their website or in pamphlets, etc. And so in this one version, we just showed the picture of the little girl. We said her name and her age and where she was from. That was all the information.
Then we had another version in which we at length described several true statistics about the severity of need. Then we had a third version in which we did both. We showed the picture of this little girl, and we provided the statistics. And so that third condition, I think, is the most interesting. So as you might expect from everything we’ve been talking about, when we just showed the picture, we were able to raise more money, get more people to donate, than when we just showed the statistics. However, when we showed the picture and the statistics, that was not as effective as just showing the picture.
Katy Milkman: I love that study, and I teach it every year. Why is it that adding the statistics to the image in your study was less effective? That seems really counterintuitive to me. Why would statistics drive down giving?
Deborah Small: Thinking about that third condition where there was both a identifiable victim and some statistical information is informative in this case. We go back to kind of classic judgment and decision making where people think in different ways—Kahneman uses the term “system one” and “system two.” System one is more intuitive and more affective. System two is more reason-based and calculative. And so you might think about statistics as fitting with system two—numeric it’s quantitative. And it turns out that that, although rational in some way, is just not motivating.
Affect is what motivates us. Numbers are kind of de-motivating if you think about it. They’re there for more of like our understanding and sense-making, and not so much to motivate action. And so I think that when you present statistics to people, it changes their mindset in a way that they’re less motivated to give. The other part of it could be that it shows the enormity of the problem and then makes that single individual presented in the picture seem less important, right? They’re merely like a drop in the bucket of a larger problem, or maybe a problem that’s too large to tackle. So why bother? It’s demotivating in that sense.
Katy Milkman: What do you think their key takeaway should be from this? Is there anything the average person should do or think about differently on a day-to-day basis?
Deborah Small: There’s kind of a dilemma here. So, on the one hand, when you recognize the identifiable-victim effect, it points out a distortion, or points out a bias, and it seems wrong to be devoting a lot of aid only to help one person or when we’re moved by a particular individual, when there’s so many people suffering. But at the same time, if we didn’t have those feelings, if we didn’t have that motivation, what’s the alternative? Maybe people would be less generous overall. Maybe people wouldn’t be that motivated to help. And so one way of thinking about the identifiable-victim effect is it’s kind of like a second-best optimum. Our psychology, our feelings, our attention may not be leading to the most rational way of giving, but the absence of that psychology might make us kind of cold and selfish. And so I think that’s the dilemma.
Katy Milkman: So there’s another topic that’s often discussed alongside the identifiable-victim effect that involves a different predictable contortion in the way that we value important things like lives. And I’d like to dig into that for a minute too, because I think it will also be of interest to our listeners. I was wondering if you could describe what scope insensitivity is and how it differs from the identifiable-victim effect.
Deborah Small: Sure. So scope insensitivity comes from psychophysics. It is basically the relationship between the magnitude of a stimulus and the magnitude of response. And we know from lots of work in psychology and judgment and decision making that it’s not a one-to-one mapping. So as magnitude of the stimulus increases, we tend to respond to it to a lesser and lesser degree.
Katy Milkman: So one kind of stimulus would be finding out how expensive something will be, and another would be finding out how many people will die from this policy?
Deborah Small: Correct. So you can kind of go to the fundamentals of psychophysics and look at things like how bright a light seems or how loud a noise seems, but the same psychology carries over to how we feel about our salary or income, right? How much money we’re making or how much something costs, as you described, and also how we think about the valuation of life. And so when we’re in very low numbers, the differences seem relatively large, right? So the difference between saving one and two lives feels pretty big to us, but when we’re talking about that difference at a much larger scale—so the difference between ... I’m making this up, but like 1,000,087 lives versus 1,000,088 lives—doesn’t feel very different to us at all.
And sometimes even when you get beyond one or two, all of a sudden the valuation curve starts flattening out pretty quickly. And so some earlier work on scope insensitivity looked at things like how much people would be willing to pay to save a certain number of extinct birds. And if you ask one group of people, “How much would you be willing to pay to save seven of these birds?” You ask another group of people how much they’d be willing to pay to save eight of these birds. On average, people say about the same thing, and so it seems like the response they're giving you is not a calculation of sort of the marginal benefit of each bird. It’s really more of an expression of their value. How important they think this cause is. And I think that’s the way to think about scope insensitivity. Interestingly, the psychologist Chris Hsee has done some important work in which he finds that if you ask people, say that exact scenario, saving seven versus eight birds, if you ask the same people that at the same time, they value saving eight birds more than seven birds. Everybody understands that eight is better than seven in this case. But when they don’t have the comparative, that’s when they tend to look scope insensitive.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, right. So he talks about this as the evaluability issue. Is it do you think at all related to the heartstrings element of the identifiable-victim effect, or would you say the source is really something very distinct?
Deborah Small: I think they’re definitely related. And so if you think about that value function, the difference between zero and one is where you see the biggest gap. And so that is definitely like one way to think about the identifiable-victim effect. To me, that seems more like a description of the effect than trying to kind of get at the underlying psychology, and to me the identifiable-victim effect is more than that. It's also just the things that happen when you focus on a specific individual. The humanity, back to the girl in the pond, the sense of moral obligation that is really specific to a single individual. It’s categorically different from larger numbers, whereas scope insensitivity is really trying to understand different magnitudes beyond one.
Katy Milkman: That’s really interesting and important. What do you think people should do differently if they want to make decisions now that they know about this tendency to be scope insensitive?
Deborah Small: We’ve discussed before how people in a joint evaluation mode tend to be more scope sensitive. And so I think that the solution there is maybe good record keeping of your past decisions so that you can attempt to be consistent over time because the real bias comes in when we’re making individual decisions in isolation. It’s just really hard to know how much to value something, right? When asked how much more, say, we’re willing to pay for something or how much we value things, maybe we don’t know how to answer it. And so we answer a different question. Like, “I care about this issue,” or “I want to be a good person.” And when we answer that other question that leads us to be insensitive to the exact magnitude. Bottom line is that consistency is really important for good decision-making. If you want to be consistent, you want to think about lots of choices at the same time, or keep records of past decisions.
Katy Milkman: I love that answer because we did an episode on joint-versus-separate preference reversals and talked about how your emotions come into play more when you make those isolated choices and that we make more rational, reasoned choices when we make them in joint evaluation. So it’s perfect. Deb, I’m curious if you thought at all about scope insensitivity in the context of COVID?
Deborah Small: Yeah, great question. So it’s been really interesting in this past year for many reasons. One is that the general public has become so much more interested in data and tracking data. And the news has been presenting all of these beautiful visualizations of trends and cases and deaths and vaccinations and all of these sorts of things. And it’s important to note, I think, that people’s concern about COVID anecdotally, at least, does not track the magnitude of COVID at that moment. So the very beginning was really scary and cases were rising, but that was far from the worst that we’ve seen. And at the peak of COVID cases and COVID deaths, people’s behavior, so it seemed, was not necessarily reflective of that magnitude, both in terms of their concern about others in society and also their own behavior and precautions that they would take.
Katy Milkman: And you think that's because we essentially became numb to those large numbers?
Deborah Small: I think we became numb to those large numbers and we became coupled with probably adapting over time. When it was new, a novelty made it more scary and more vivid, and we just adapted to it and we didn’t see it as much.
Katy Milkman: It really was amazing to watch The New York Times do that huge spread when we hit 100,000 deaths. And then I don’t think another big moment was noticed until 500,000.
Deborah Small: Right.
Katy Milkman: And it was astounding. Deb, thank you for doing this. This was wonderful. Really appreciate having you on the show.
Deborah Small: Anytime.
Katy Milkman: Deborah Small is the Laura and John J. Pomerantz Professor of Marketing and Psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. You can find a link to her research on the identifiable-victim effect and work she referenced on scope insensitivity in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
Planning for distant events like retirement might seem abstract, but identifying concrete goals along the way can help you make your retirement plans real. Check out the episode of the Financial Decoder podcast called “How Can You Set Better Goals?” to learn more. You can find it at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you get your podcasts.
The identifiable-victim effect is one of a small set of biases that I view as endearing. Deb Small called it a second-best optimum, in that it helps compel generosity and selflessness, even though it sometimes causes us to neglect the bigger picture. I’m glad to live in a world where most people are ready to jump in a pond to save a drowning child, and I suspect you are too. And of course, the identifiable-victim effect is arguably part of what makes photography and story-based journalism so compelling and important. What’s less than ideal is that we can’t naturally conjure up the image of an identifiable victim when we’re faced with dismal statistics. Scope insensitivity can also lead us to ignore important and consequential information when we’re making decisions.
When it’s hard to evaluate a number in isolation, it’s incredibly valuable to look for a relevant comparison. Say you’re unsure if 600,000 American deaths from COVID in a year and a half is truly exceptional. By comparing that number with the 400,000 Americans lost in World War II over four years, you’ll be able to better appreciate the magnitude. In general, we need a basis of comparison for numbers large and small to be able to put them in context and make wise decisions. Once you understand the way we’re wired to think about identifiable victims and to diminish large numbers when they aren’t easy to understand, my hope is that you can better calibrate your judgments.
You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also follow us for free in your favorite podcasting app. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology about how to improve your decisions, you can order my new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at katymilkman.com/newsletter. Next time, you’ll hear how a world’s fair failed to live up to its potential, partly because of the rosy predictions of the organizers.
I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.
Speaker 5: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.