Empathy’s failures

October 2nd, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, irrationality research | 35 Comments »

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.

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35 Responses

  1. mus said,

    October 2, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Truly, grim stuff.

    But anecdotal evidence tells us the same thing, even Stalin knew it.
    The question is:
    Is tragedy defined by the number of people dead or the manner in which they die? Suspecting the latter, why is the number of dead irrelevant? Is it because to most people the loss of even one life is such an inconceivable event that the loss of, say, a million lives is simply a million times more inconceivable – resulting in the necessity for spectacular circumstances to effectively frame a tragedy in the public eye?
    Human minds are simply not equipped to comprehend such numbers. One guy is easy – that’s you. Two guys, that’s just you and your buddy. 10 guys? That might be your family. 20 people? That’s already a whole room full, and you’re not keeping track of each and every one of them. 50? 100? 1000?1 million? Now all you’ve got is abstract symbols that you can relate to each other, but not to the real world any more. You’ve got a monkey brain and your monkey consciousness constructs a monkeysphere that simply is too crowded too fast when you’re dealing with any number of people greater than 20 or so.
    Like I said: Grim stuff.

  2. EnglishAtheist said,

    October 2, 2010 at 12:52 am

    It is very sad.

    Could it also be a factor that we tend to experience death one, or at worst, a few at a time?

    Most people don’t experience 30 people dieing all at once.

    Might this also affect trial data – 3 people is a bunch of close friends, your family. 30 people is quite alot.

    I’d like to see this experiment repeated with scholl children, who will spend a lot of time with the same 30 people. Though granted, being younger, their notions of right/wrong, and punishments associated with them will be rather different.

  3. MrNick said,

    October 2, 2010 at 1:31 am

    I seem to remember coming across a report that charities were more successful if their appeals focused on individual people rather than groups (evan as small as two). It sounds like the same effect to me.


  4. mus said,

    October 2, 2010 at 2:31 am

    Uh, is there a reason this was posted again, under a different heading?

  5. nigel holmes said,

    October 2, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Someone who harms a thousand people can probably afford better lawyers than someone who harms three. Did they take that into account?

  6. ChrisP said,

    October 2, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I’d be interested to know what the function looks like – I’m guessing that three victims are regarded as worse than one.

    So there might a peak punishment for a certain number of victims, small enough for empathy, but large enough to magnify the perceived severity of the crime.

    Could be useful information for someone…

  7. ayupmeduck said,

    October 2, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Too depressing, so here is Eddie Izzard making a similar observation for comic effect (right at the end of clip):


  8. misterjohn said,

    October 2, 2010 at 10:29 am

    It’s worth bearing in mind that outside the laboratory it is not the jurors who decide what offence the defendant is charged with, nor what the sentence will be, so there are at least two confounding factors which have not been considered.
    In the UK it is the CPS which eventually decides what the charges will be, and it is the judge who decides the sentence. The jury decides simply whether the defendant is guilty based on the evidence they have seen and heard.
    And the judge is constrained by the law in terms of the sentences available.

  9. fnorman said,

    October 2, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I wonder if perceived intent is a factor? A crime against one person suggests quite a focused intention to harm that person. A crime against 50 people may be perceived as more diffuse intent – negligence rather than malice.

  10. Omega666 said,

    October 2, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Important point to make, that it’s not juries that decide the severity or legth of punishment. In other words, the researchers found that in the real world, it is educated and experienced lawyers who are subject to this empathy fail. Hopefully, the findings will have consequences for the education of lawyers in the future.

  11. nonuthin said,

    October 2, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I’m a first-time visitor to this site, and I’m a little confused that the described journal article is discussed on a site called “bad science.” From this page’s summary of the article, the article contains two studies with experimental control or randomization of all variables except the focal one (number of victims), and a complementary archival analysis of court cases, which reveals the same thing. This site doesn’t go into the article’s literature review much, but I know from my own studies that this finding is unsurprising given past research literature on the topic.

    Instead, what I see is a reflexive suspicion of the controlled, ‘rarefied’ laboratory studies, which is mitigated by the presence of the archival analysis even though alternate explanations for the archival trend are postulated. So what gives? Am I missing something here? Is this research being put up as “bad science gone good” or something, or is this just a nice post about actual science that happened to show up in a “bad science” column?

  12. JonathanE said,

    October 2, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    I downloaded the paper from the link. And they used US toxic tort cases where juries do decide the punitive damages, which is what they used as a measure of punishment severity.

  13. mightydave said,

    October 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    This is similar to an article showing that people give less to charity when shown the plight of several needy people than one or two needy people. See “Human Compassion Surprisingly Limited, Study Finds” at www.livescience.com/health/070216_genocide_interest.html.

  14. asuffield said,

    October 2, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    “Is this research being put up as “bad science gone good” or something, or is this just a nice post about actual science that happened to show up in a “bad science” column?”

    This post is a bit unusual here, in that it is on the surface actual science done well. The “bad science” is what the juries are doing. It’s only indirectly relevant to the subject of the site.

  15. EnglishAtheist said,

    October 3, 2010 at 2:23 am


    Ben Goldacre has said elsewhere (slightly edited, removing bits pertitnent to article it’s taken from, link below for original):

    my main criteria for a column are:

    1. illustrate an interesting aspect of science
    2. illustrate an interesting point on communicating about science
    3. not obscure target (unless it’s really really funny)


  16. leeko said,

    October 3, 2010 at 2:45 am

    Does this mean George Bush will never get charged for crimes against humanity because he killed too many people?

  17. jesroddy said,

    October 3, 2010 at 4:37 am

    As an aside re the 2 little boys song. It wasn’t Rolf Harris “own song” and certainly wasnt composed by Rolf based on his fathers life. It was written in 1902 and was popularised by Harry Lauder. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Little_Boys

    None of which detracts from the sadness of RH’s story.

  18. ChrisPartridge said,

    October 3, 2010 at 11:20 am


  19. psybertron said,

    October 3, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    @fnorman (comment 9) This is what I suspect is the effect at work – more personal by intent. (Except where it is perceived as an act of terrorism where we ourselves are the targets as well as the immediate victims.)

  20. elder_pegasus said,

    October 4, 2010 at 1:46 am

    Aber das ist wohl so, weil ein einzelner immer der Tod ist — und zwei Millionen immer nur eine Statistik.

  21. John H. said,

    October 4, 2010 at 8:26 am

    As Stalin once said, the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a thousand is a statistic.

    We can empathize with a specific person but a whole group of people may involve empathizing with people with whom we find many faults.

  22. mikey2gorgeous said,

    October 4, 2010 at 8:54 am

    I wonder if this effect is the cause of the general ‘acceptance’ in society of the number of deaths & injuries on the roads in the UK? If the same number were dying in, say, planes, there’d be outcry and calls for groundings.

    We have 3,000 killed and seriously injured on UK roads each year. Something about speed precludes our brains from observing it rationally – it’s done instinctively and so often the decision precludes rational influence. Going from 50 to 40 on a dual carriageway FEELS like we’re coming almost to a halt.

    We seriously need to examine the physical/psychological reaction to speed – it’s not as straightforward as we thought and is undoubtedly part of the problem we have with speed compliance generally.

  23. Timo_M said,

    October 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Could these results be applied for reasoning whether it is reasonable for victims to have individual trials or class actions. For example smokers suing tobacco companies might be better of having separate trials where jury can have more symbathy for small number of victims than a huge trial with a large mass as a victim.

    In mentioned example to company lawyers might run over small budget lawyers and I would not be very practical. But in general don’t these studies suggest that one might get a better justice if multible crimes should be trialed as separate single acts. e.g. genocide as multible accounts of murder, environmental disasters (like Bhobal) as multible accounts of involuntary manslaughters?

  24. Flat Eric said,

    October 4, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    The possibility of bigger corporations having deeper pockets for better lawyers has already been aired.
    THe ugly phenomenen of compassion fatigue may also be a contributary factor.
    I also believe there may be the distinction between negligence and malice, as fnorman eloquently posted.

  25. elvisionary said,

    October 4, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    This may be stretching the concept a little bit too far, but the Nazis decided to start using gas chambers to kill Jews and their other victims because they were concerned about the effect that non-industrialised murder might have on their own troops.

  26. Paulski said,

    October 4, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Nice article.

    I’m sure all lawyers who know their way around a courtroom understand this principle, as does any good journalist who knows her way around a newsroom. That being said, the ability to navigate your place of work is not the determining factor.

    Journalists are always told to keep an eye out for the ‘human factor’ – a story doesn’t have the same kick if we are barraged only by numbers and facts. I guess in the case of a criminal trial, the prosecution’s job is to keep the personal element involved when trying a criminal who has effected the lives of a great number of people, although is this by practice ethical? Unfortunately I guess showmanship will always play an important part in a courtroom, and if that means disregarding the facts in place of a tearjerking story from someone we can all relate to, I think we know which one most lawyers would plump for.

    On a very slight tangent, can anyone enlighten me with the reason why we have lawyers present in the courtroom once the evidence has been collected? Is there not a good argument for having everything written down and then read out in court by someone appointed to do so? Then again, the most resourceful companies would be stumping up the cash to get Morgan Freeman to read theirs out, wouldn’t they?

  27. gnadori said,

    October 4, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    I’m not sure how it was made, but if the severity of the crime (the fraud) is measured in money. And the damage was the same in the two cases, then the per capita damage is much smaller if there are more people concerned. (Let’s say tha damage is 1000 USD, is 10 people were cheated, the were cheated of 100 dollars each, if 1000 than it was only 1 dollar, clearly not the same measure.)

  28. stoneyground said,

    October 5, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Thanks alot Ben – you’ve just made my cry in the middle of my afternoon surgery! Case in point I guess..

  29. elecuanime said,

    October 6, 2010 at 11:07 am

    I think the correlation between the experimental and real-world situations may be heavily influenced by a company’s ability to hire highly competent legal help. It’s pretty obvious that a company capable of inflicting greater harm than another also can afford more high-priced lawyers.
    On a side note, I just wanted to comment on the Nobel prize web site. I am a medicinal chemist and have always awaited the announcements (the press releases as well as the more detailed information for workers in the area) in October and all I can find today are tweets! The end has arrived 🙁

  30. justanotherlawyer said,

    October 7, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Enjoyed the article, as ever. Thanks Ben. Makes me glad of the existence of guidelines, our common law and the fact that a judge decides quantum in this country.

    @ Paulski: the slight tangent
    In almost every trial there are pressure points in the evidence where one side has (at least) one version of events and the other (at least) another version. This can be in relation only to small details (which may or may not be important), but it can also be a dispute as to the entire factual framework.

    The art of a closing speech is to weave your side’s version into a coherent narrative that fits (as far as it can) with objective – I use that word as a lawyer not a scientist or philosopher – and/or agreed facts, common sense and human nature.

    Once you have established the factual basis of your case from the evidence, the task is then to apply to the law to those facts and to argue (one hopes persuasively) why your case should win (eg your client should be acquitted; or a (civil) defendant should be found liable).

    Part of this process involves commenting upon the evidence: arguing, for example, why one witness is not reliable/credible and another is.

    To my mind it is an extremely important part of any trial process as it is the opportunity for whatever your client’s case is to be drawn together and submitted to the tribunal in as an attractive a way as possible.

    It is also the appropriate time to criticise and emphasise the weaknesses in your opponents case.

    Having a voice like Morgan Freeman to do all that would be nice, though.

  31. mikewhit said,

    October 7, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    The other point is that it might serve to illustrate why the media gets more worked up about the occasional anecdotal ‘miracle’ remission/cure rather than the contradictory randomised control trial.

  32. Giles said,

    October 9, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    This ties in with the idea – I can’t remember which Science Fiction writer it came from – that before the president of the USA can launch a nuclear strike he should have to personally cut the launch codes out of a live and obviously innocent child. It’s truly terrifying to think that it might be easier to launch a missile than to kill one child standing in front of you.

  33. BrickWall said,

    October 11, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Don’t know if anyone else is still following this stream but thought I’d add a late thought. There is a third category of offender that hasn’t been mentioned at all yet (I think?!) that is someone who commits the same offence but no-one dies at all as a consequence.

    Where does the empathy lie in that scenario? Offending action exactly the same, possibly even same intent, but no deaths/victims.

    I think society deals with this group most leniently of all.

  34. JdH said,

    October 17, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I missed this while away; so reading it online has prompted me to add some comments…

    I think it is missing an important point in describing this as a ‘failure’ of empathy. Empathy has also to be practical: how much pain can be borne? Adam Phillips opens his ‘Darwin’s Worms’ with a story told by John Cage. Cage had been asked ‘Don’t you think there’s too much suffering in the world?’ Cage apparently replied: ‘No, I think there’s just the right amount.’ Like physical pain, empathy has to have an evolutionary component, perhaps being most functional in small social groups long predating our vastly interconnected and crowded societies. This may be its psychological origin, but there may also be cultural development. I was reminded of a passage in David Crystal’s ‘The Stories of English’ which notes that ‘murder’ once also meant a killing carried out in secret, as contrasted with open killings which might allow for legitimate revenge. This in part reflected the enlargement of societies: more ‘strangers’.

    With regard to the specific issue of the degree of punishment following a crime, I seem to recall (granted from over 30 years ago) that there were social psychology investigations which identified differential punishments depending on the consequences of an action. I think it questioned people on the punishment due if a lorry driver left the brake off in his vehicle: the answers varied considerably depending on whether the lorry hit a lamp-post or if it hit a child.

    Empathy has its limitations, and maybe we ask too much of it; maybe too the very act of looking at it is itself an attempt to further develop this capacity.
    Title notwithstanding, keep up the fine articles. Best bit of the Guardian.

  35. johnkooz said,

    October 27, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    dont’ understand relevance (or maybe just disliked the reference) of last paragraph anecdotes, but…

    ” 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.”

    is VERY Yikes. Like some bystander effect. Reminds me of how old people who have a plant or pet live longer, or some other odd seemingly irrelevant factor contributing to shaping major consequences.