Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 2 October 2010
Like all students of wrongness, I’m fascinated by research into irrational beliefs and behaviours, but I’m also suspicious of how far you can stretch the findings from a laboratory into the real world. A cracking new paper from Social Psychology and Personality Science makes a neat attempt to address this shortcoming.
Loran Nordgren and Mary McDonnell wanted to see whether our perception of the severity of a crime was affected by the number of people affected. 60 students were given a vignette to read about a case of fraud, where either 3 people or 30 people were defrauded by a financial advisor, but all the other information in the story was kept the same.
In an ideal world, you’d imagine that someone who harmed more people would deserve a harsher treatment. Participants were asked to evaluate the severity of the crime, and recommend a punishment: even though fewer people were affected, participants who read the story with only 3 victims rated the crime as more serious than those who read the exact same story, but with 30 victims.
And more than that, they acted on this view: out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who heard the 3 victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30 victim people. Another study, where a food processing company knowingly poisoned its customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results.
Now, it’s nice that they did two studies of the same idea, but I always worry about experiments like this, because they demonstrate an effect in the rarefied environment of the lab, while the real world can be much more complicated.
So what’s great about this paper is that it has two halves: they then go on to examine the actual sentences given in a representative sample of 136 real world court cases, to people who were found guilty of exactly these kinds of crimes, but with different numbers of victims, to see what impact the victim-count had.
The results were extremely depressing. These were cases where people from corporations had been found guilty of negligently exposing members of the public to toxic substances such as asbestos, lead paint, or toxic mould, and their victims had all suffered significantly. They were all from 2000 to 2009, they were all jury trials, and the researchers’ hypothesis was correct: people who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm smaller number of people. Juries punish people less harshly when they harm more people.
Now it seems to me that alternative explanations may possibly play a contributory role here: cases where lots of people were harmed may be from larger companies, with more expensive and competent lawyers, for example. But in the light of their earlier experiment, it’s hard to discount a contribution from empathy, and this is a phenomenon we all recognise.
When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, Rolf Harris chose to take his own song “Two Little Boys” with him. When war broke out, Rolf explained, his father and uncle had both joined up, his father lying about his younger brother’s age so they could both join the fight. But their mother found out and dobbed them in, because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing both her sons so young. Rolf’s uncle joined up 2 years later when he came of age, was injured, and died on the front. Rolf’s dad was beside himself, and for the rest of his life he believed that no matter what the risks, if he had been in the same infantry, he could have crawled out and saved his younger brother, just like in the song. Rolf played “Two Little Boys” to his grandmother just once. She sat through it quietly, took it off at the end, and said quietly: “please don’t ever play that to me again”.
This story always makes me cry a little bit. 2 million people die of Aids every year. It never has the same effect.