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The Scope-Severity Paradox
October 4, 2010 1:12 PM   Subscribe

In an ideal world, you’d imagine that someone who harmed more people would deserve a harsher treatment: a new paper by Loran F. Nordgren and Mary McDonnell, The Scope-Severity Paradox, suggests people find crime with fewer victims more severe than those with more victims. [PDF link]

Via Rage on Omnipotent
posted by MuffinMan (47 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:14 PM on October 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


I'm reminded of Eddie Izzard on Pol Pot (already mentioned in the comments of the FPP's link.)
posted by Zed at 1:14 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


This doesn't seem all that odd to me by way of the quote that shakespeherian already referenced. With just a few people affected, it's easy to try to empathize and put faces to them, whereas with a large group it's less about people and more about numbers.

I suspect that this is part of the human condition, we just seem to be wired to focus on the small scale and soft-focus the big stuff.

Probably to keep us sane.
posted by quin at 1:18 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if we are harder on individuals with fewer victims because it's seems more personal.
posted by WhiteWhale at 1:19 PM on October 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm thinking that juries are holding people more responsible for defrauding people they actually KNEW, up close and personal -- that somehow, if you only steal from a few people, that means you knew them and it's PERSONAL. Defrauding a whole bunch of people isn't as bad because you couldn't possibly have known them as well -- you're not 'violating their trust' as much.

That old adage that if you steal, you should try to steal millions, is making even more sense now than it did.

I gotta say, the research they're doing into morality and ethics is absolutely fascinating, but boy, is it uncomfortable.
posted by Malor at 1:19 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


WhiteWhale : I wonder if we are harder on individuals with fewer victims because it's seems more personal.

I was just coming back to further expound on this idea:

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.

My brain parsed as such:

"The person with 30 victims was doing it the same way someone working in a slaughterhouse might; cold, efficient, just all about the numbers, the person with 3 took their time and really personally screwed every one of the three they targeted."

This may be a completely unfair assessment, but when I read the initial paragraph, this is how the movie theater in my head played it out.
posted by quin at 1:27 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


The fewer victims there are, the easier it is to focus on the victims. By focusing on the real person who was victimized, we are able to become angry that this person we know a bit about was wronged. As such, we can direct our anger at the criminal.

When there are a lot of victims, there are too many victims to actually get to know. It is much easier in that case to learn about the criminal. The more we know about the criminal, the more of a real person he becomes. The more real he is to us, the more sympathy we develop for him.
posted by flarbuse at 1:31 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Hmm.. now I want this to be taken one step further. At what point does it cross from punishment into reward?
Defraud 3 go to Leavenworth for 2-3 years
Defraud 30 go to jail for 3 months, followed by house arrest and probation
Defraud 300,000 get a month in country-club prison and keep your $60 million severance package
Defraud 30,000,000 and get a 30 minute special on CNBC about your great business practices.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 1:34 PM on October 4, 2010 [19 favorites]


They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king


- Bob Dylan, Sweetheart Like You
posted by flarbuse at 1:42 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This makes me think of one, two, many. At a certain point, the people just become a mass of many, but instead of a simple option of few or many, there's a slider of quantities understood. People know 100 other people, so that quantity is not meaningless. But 10,000 people? 1,000,000? That's just a mass without any individualization. Start telling stories about the individuals, and the hazy mass might become more distinctly made up of individuals, but that's hoping.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:44 PM on October 4, 2010


I came in here to say exactly what was referenced about the Eddie Izzard/Pol Pot bit.

"You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick. That's what they do. You kill 20 people and they stick you in a room with a window and stare at you for the rest of your life. More than that and we just can't deal with it. It's almost 'Well... well, done!'"
posted by sonika at 1:49 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you steal one bag of rice you go to jail. If you steal all the rice in the kingdom, you're the king.
posted by wuwei at 1:52 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Humans suck at math.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:54 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


You must get up verrrrry early in the morning to make the same Eddie Izzard reference as everyone else! I can't even get to the gym!

Sigh... I sure do, Eddie.
posted by supercres at 1:56 PM on October 4, 2010


Humans suck at defining and dispensing justice.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:56 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gotta love all the people trying to rationalize this.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 1:56 PM on October 4, 2010


If you steal one bag of rice you go to jail. If you steal all the rice in the kingdom, you're the king.

Ask the king for one grain of rice today, two grains of rice tomorrow, 4 grains of rice the next day, 8 the day after... and you'll get your head chopped off for being a cheeky clever bastard.
posted by kmz at 1:58 PM on October 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


This makes me think of one, two, many. At a certain point, the people just become a mass of many, but instead of a simple option of few or many, there's a slider of quantities understood. People know 100 other people, so that quantity is not meaningless. But 10,000 people? 1,000,000? That's just a mass without any individualization. Start telling stories about the individuals, and the hazy mass might become more distinctly made up of individuals, but that's hoping.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:44 PM on October 4 [many favorites +] [!]
posted by Riki tiki at 1:58 PM on October 4, 2010


Poisoning your neighbor? That's sick and depraved. Poisoning your neighborhood? That's just how business works.
posted by benzenedream at 1:58 PM on October 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


Gotta love all the people trying to rationalize this.

Got something against reason?
posted by Riki tiki at 1:59 PM on October 4, 2010


The victim experiences his or her death solo. Death is probably the least collective experience any of us will ever have. The heniousness of the first murder isn't intensified by the second, third and so on. Each murder stands alone and starts the moral reckoning anew. Two lives aren't more precious than one. Every life is precious.
posted by Faze at 2:01 PM on October 4, 2010


Humans suck at math.

If you get mugged for your wallet, the other guy's a felon. If you get mugged for your wallet, house, pension, college fund, etc., the other guy's running a casino.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:04 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you hit one guy in the face with a pie, you're a prankster, if you hit a hundred guys in the face with pies, you're running a circus.
posted by kmz at 2:12 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you read one jokey comment in this format, it's cute. If you read a dozen, it's kind of annoying.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:16 PM on October 4, 2010 [19 favorites]


Yeah, if your home is robbed of everything, including your family photos and diaries, it feels like a devastating personal loss. If 200 people on your block suffer the same fate, it feels like maybe a chance to escape your loneliness. You should be happy!
posted by Dumsnill at 2:19 PM on October 4, 2010


Gotta love all the people trying to rationalize this.

Got something against reason?


Rationalization ≠ reason.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 2:20 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wanna really feel the wrath of the law? Get caught for a crime with no victims.
posted by telstar at 2:51 PM on October 4, 2010 [19 favorites]


If you get mugged for your wallet, the other guy's a felon. If you get mugged for your wallet, house, pension, college fund, etc., the other guy's running a casino an investment scam.

FTFY, Blazecock Pileon.

Casinos don't mug people, just as bottles don't force themselves on alcoholics.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:39 PM on October 4, 2010


Related:
Teen gets 12-month sentence for minor offense - and thug gets probation for raping her (and at least 2 others, but most likely a lot more)
posted by ryoshu at 3:44 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the results would be the same if the scenarios had been about, say, murder or rape instead of financial fraud. I think it's possible to hear about someone frauding 100 people and - possibly callused by all the stories like that - intuitively treat it as a legitimate business that was accidentally doing something wrong.
posted by roll truck roll at 4:15 PM on October 4, 2010


With just a few people affected, it's easy to try to empathize and put faces to them, whereas with a large group it's less about people and more about numbers.

I've heard that too, and it certainly seems like a plausible explanation. But if it were true, wouldn’t you expect to see the same outpouring of support once you put a sentimental face on the problem – “This is Pedro, a poor child who lives with his family in a rural Guatemalan village. For just $1 a day, you can send Pedro to school…” This helps, but it’s not the same response you see in a singular event. I think I have a better explanation: the function of empathy is not to fix problems, it’s to let the victim know they aren’t suffering alone. Reactions based in empathy are only intended to signify something like “I am moved by your suffering, I also feel it,” so donations are a way to publicly register your solidarity with the victim. In a sense, the essence of victimhood is wrongful exclusion from the community, and the role of empathy is to reassert their belonging. The problem of large-scale disasters is that there are so many victims that they are presumed to have solidarity among themselves. A community of victims doesn’t suffer alone and don’t require recognition from us because they can recognize each other.

Empathy’s failure, to use the author's phrase, is that it’s fundamentally therapeutic – it makes you feel better – rather than critical. You can see this distinction in the well-known quote: "When I feed the poor I am called a saint. But if I ask why the poor have no food I am called a Communist."

But maybe there is another possible reaction. In large scale disasters, the relationship between the One and the All is reversed: in a standard tragedy, the One victim stands in contrast and separated from the All of us, the community. But in large disasters this is reversed, the All is the group of victims who are affected, the One is me, which is why the normal experience is powerlessness in the face of the scope of the disaster. The One who is excluded from the All is me, so in the structure of victimhood, I occupy the position of victim! This may explain why some people feel the intense urge to "rejoin" the community, to fly to Haiti to help, despite possessing no useful skills. It's almost as if they want to suffer to reassert their belonging in the community who suffers, which gives it a kind of messianic Christ-like spin on it, the One who becomes a victim to save us All. With that insight, I propose a new model for charity ad campaigns: "Here are pictures of the millions of people suffering from the Haiti Earthquake. Here's what you can do: be crucified, and rise again after 3 days! Be wounded for their transgressions! Be bruised for their iniquities! The chastisement of their peace will be upon you, and with your stripes they are healed! Give only what you can - everything!"

I think this idea would have a strange appeal to some, but of course it wouldn't work for a charity, it's really designed for a political campaign. When secular liberal attempt to co-opt Christianity, they always choose the serene charitable Humanist Jesus of the Beatitudes who fed the hungry and healed the sick, "we should emulate him with our sensible social programs". But maybe the true revolutionary political gesture is to co-opt the divine figure of Christ, the one who furiously drove out the money changers and irrationally sacrificed everything.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:31 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This has had an impact on public policy and social conditioning and it matters. There is this common belief that "crime" is a matter of poverty, of youth, of race. The richer, the older, the whiter - i.e. the more powerful - cause intentional harm to many more people but it's handwaved away as if it were invisible. Just a part of life and not a social problem.
posted by Danila at 4:40 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Humans suck at defining and dispensing justice.

As opposed to whom?
posted by nola at 4:59 PM on October 4, 2010


The reptile brain has not evolved to the extent of recognizing abstract threats, such as global warming or credit default swaps.
posted by bad grammar at 5:08 PM on October 4, 2010


Just to be comprehensive:

Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.

Jean Rostand, Thoughts of a Biologist (1939)

I can grok someone killing someone else, i.e., crazy wife murders husband.

I used to have trouble fitting my head around genocide a la Pol Pot. But then I saw the piles of skulls and talked to a bunch of people who were there. After that it was pretty easy, but probably only because I could associate the abstract concepts with the experience of individuals.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:46 PM on October 4, 2010


It's like this. If you destroy a city, that's extremely impressive, and you get a medal. If you stomp a baby, that's pathetic and you get the chair. It's like the difference between a Michael Bay movie and a submission to America's Funnies Home Videos.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 7:04 PM on October 4, 2010


That Daily News piece that ryoshu linked is one of the most horrific things I have ever read.

Was this study conducted on Americans? If someone who only targets a few people gets you, you're a victim. If someone who targets a lot of people gets you, you're a loser. Americans don't like losers.
posted by keratacon at 7:30 PM on October 4, 2010


Casinos don't mug people, just as bottles don't force themselves on alcoholics.

Maybe.

Beer and liquor companies spend a metric shit-ton of money on advertising that sexes up their product and puts it everywhere people go in modern society, well past the point where I think freedom of choice is cut-and-dry.

Casinos do the same, in their own way, to keep gambling addicts coming in and staying — even if that small print about a 1-800 number for gambling addictions is put somewhere out of the way of the content of a huge ad. They will bleed addicts dry and then work out repayment terms at some unspecified point in the future.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that addicts have no choice. I'm just not sure it's a black-and-white matter. Addictions (of various kinds) are diseases that afflict some unfortunate people, which certain systemic parts of our capitalist society know how to tap into, whilst winking at everyone involved at the same time, since we live in a marketplace of ideas where everyone is free to make their own choices. Except when they don't or can't.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:53 PM on October 4, 2010


Anyway, sorry for the derail. My jokey comment was more about how nearly all people suck at math, yet casinos are still legitimate enterprises.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:16 PM on October 4, 2010


I'd be interested to see a variant of the 3 vs 30 experiment in which a third group are told a story in which 3 people were harmed, but then later in the story discover that a further 27 had also been harmed. I'm guessing that the reaction the small-harm group had would be replicated in this group, and would persist after they're told about the additional victims.
posted by logopetria at 11:15 PM on October 4, 2010


Metafilter: killing lots of people is ok because we can make witty witticisms.

So George Bush gets a pass for all those people he killed?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:25 PM on October 4, 2010


I wish the article would have gotten into the evolutionary side of things. I would think this could be explained by our cultural and maybe biological evolution.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:39 PM on October 4, 2010


So George Bush gets a pass for all those people he killed?

A pass? He gets a library, an annual pension that's more than most people make in decades of honest work, free Secret Service protection for life, an office staff, and much more. Plus, he doesn't have to share a cell with Cheney.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:55 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


A pass? He gets a library, an annual pension that's more than most people make in decades of honest work, free Secret Service protection for life, an office staff, and much more. Plus, he doesn't have to share a cell with Cheney.

Yes, but he also has to wake up every morning with the realization he's George Bush.

Rather him than me.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:24 AM on October 5, 2010


Gotta love all the people trying to rationalize this.

I don't see anyone here trying to rationalize this; that is, no one here is saying that it is just that the person who harms three people is punished more harshly than the one who harms thirty.

I see several people proposing explanations why people have this instinctive reaction, but explaining our instinctive reaction is not the same as justifying it. And understanding we have this instinctive reaction is the first step in transcending that reaction.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:30 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


nola: humans suck at defining and dispensing justice. Not compared to anyone or anything else. Just in ourselves, we are chaotic, incoherent and overwhelmingly arbitrary in how we dispense justice.

In Illinois, for instance, it is a graver offense, as defined by the statute, to possess (without intent to distribute or sell) a minute amount of heroin (felony 1, 4-15 years in prison for less than 15 grams) than it is to beat your spouse (class A misdemeanor, no more than 1 year in prison). Bond court, in Cook County, until recently was handled via telephone, arrestees in one room with cops and the judge, as well as the prosecutor and public defender on the other end of the phone. Even now, bond hearings last less than 60 seconds and come down to "have you got $5000? you can go home until someone gets around to bringing your case to trial. What? You haven't got $5000, go to jail." Last week, I filed a petition to expunge the criminal record of a woman who was arrested for but never convicted of shoplifting, five years ago. Her co-defendant had a private attorney who had the co-defendant's record expunged within 60 days of the case being dismissed. This woman had a public defender and hasn't worked for five years because she has an arrest, which resulted in all charges being dropped, that shows up in the databases.

As far as I can tell, that demonstrates an extraordinary deficiency in the human races' ability to define and dispense justice.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:00 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


he also has to wake up every morning with the realization he's George Bush.

You give him too much credit.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:09 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


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