On the vagaries of moral attention

If (like me) you think that it’s more important to making the world a better place that people pay attention to the right things (rather than, say, that they hold the right beliefs), then you have to be struck by the differential in media attention to two stories over the past week.  The first is the efforts to resuce seven Russian sailors trapped in a submarine in the Pacific Ocean. They were rescued this morning with the help of U.S. and British military resuce teams.

The other is the ongoing drought and widespread starvation in Niger.  Niger frequently has difficulty feeding its population, but this year inadequate rains have placed 3.6 million people in danger of starvation, including large numbers of children.

The Russian sub story was the top story on CNN and other major media outlets for the past three days.  Niger made front page appearances in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times late last week, along with stories on CNN, but quickly faded from view, being consigned to the more obscure ‘international’ pages of the newspapers

What I’d like to know is why stories like the Russian sub story (think of the little girl trapped in a Texas well in the 1980’s) get so much more of our attention than massive humanitarian crises like Niger. (Many international development experts note that often crises such as those in Sudan, Ethiopia, etc., receive attention in the Western media only after it’s very nearly too late.)  I make two assumptions:

[1] The media’s decisions about how to allocate their time and space pretty well reflect the preferences of their audiences.  I.e., the major media outlets understand their markets well enough to know which stories are likely to gain the biggest circulation or viewership.  So the collective "we" really does care about the Russian sailors than about starving children in Niger.

[2] By any objective measure, stories like Niger deserve much more attention and concern than stories like the Russian sub story. The number of people vulnerable to suffering and death is many  times greater; the needs are no less urgent (the Russian sailors had less than a day’s oxygen to survive, but surely an equal number in Niger will die today without outside assistance, along with the next day, and the next, and the next …); and while suffocating from oxygen deprivation is a grisly death, so too is dying from malnutrition or any of the conditions associated with it.

So my question: Why do we pay more attention to the Russian sailors than to the situation in Niger?  And is it possible (psychologically) that we might pay more attention to the more morally significant stories, or are we psychologically hard-wired not to? 

Here are some possible explanations for this discrepancy in our moral attention.  Notice that the explantions don’t turn on whether the statements they contain are true.  For the purposes of explanining the perplexities of our moral attention, all we need is that the explantions be psychologically accurate. (I’m also not suggesting these explanations are exclusive; the true explanation would probably invoke several of these.)

(a) FAMILIARITY. We’re so accustomed to famine and humanitarian crises, especially in Africa, that the moral novelty has worn off. (Of course, there have been many stories similar to the Russian sub story, also, like people being trapped in mines, stranded by floods, etc., so why do these stories retain their novelty?)

(b) FUTILITY AND FATIGUE.  We can do something now about the Russian sailors, but efforts to save people in Niger may not work, and there will just be another humanitarian crisis to address in a few months.  It’s just too much to ask for our continuous moral attention to hunger and disease. (I don’t buy any of this, but it’s a possible explanation.)

(c) IT’S ABOUT US, NOT THEM.  It’s just somehow more heroic and dashing to rescue sailors from the ocean than to save people from hunger.  Sending a check to an aid agency or getting emergency aid measures approved by Congress, the UN, etc., is such a pedestrian and unglamorous way to help others.  And the Russians used to be our enemies, so we’re being particularly magnanimous in coming to their aid.

(d) RECIPROCITY.  Perhaps we’ll need nations like Russia to help our military personnel when they get into a tight situation in the future (or perhaps the Russians already have helped us in similar contexts), so we’re simply looking out for our interests.  But it’s hard to conceive of a situation where American interests or the lives of Americans would depend on what anyone in Niger does.

(e) INNOCENCE AND RESPONSIBILITY. The Russian sailors were, as of yesterday, effectively helpless.  Niger has problems securing an adequate food supply, but (maybe) their present situation could have been prevented, or could be alleviated, with smarter policies concerning agriculture, population growth, economic development, etc,

(f) THE UGLY POSSIBILITY.  We’re subconscious racists.  The Russians look like us, so their suffering and death resonate with us.  The people of Niger don’t look like us, and so their suffering and death seem more remote.

So which explantion(s) carry the day?  And what does that tell us about the possibilities for what can sustain our moral attention and concern?

13 Replies to “On the vagaries of moral attention

  1. Michael,
    You ask an interesting question. The only light I think I can shed on it is to tell you about a story that was big news here in Canada for many weeks last year. Djamshid Popal (see CBC story here: Afghan boy leaves hospital) is a nine-year-old boy who was brought from Afghanistan to Toronto to receive life-saving heart surgery after Canadian military doctors diagnosed the problem. Now we all know that the number of people – children and adults – in Afghanistan who suffer grave illnesses is more than just this one boy and helping him will not put a dent in numbers of people who are still suffering. We also know that Canadian children suffer similar illnesses and are saved by surgery all the time, yet for several weeks the quest to help this boy was front page news. Why was that? I think the reasons are several.
    Firstly, it is a reaction to the feelings of futility. So many suffer and so many die and even if we can cut the number in half, it seems so terribly depressing that the idea that we can focus on one boy who can be helped allows us the feeling that something good can be done.
    Secondly, this case allowed the feeling of finality. The boy’s heart was fixed and that’s the end. Yes, he goes back to Afghanistan where life will be dangerous, but he goes with a working heart. Poverty, as in Niger, goes on and on and on. Submarine crews, once rescued, allow for finality. The idea that we can actually do something about a situation is greatly enhanced by the feeling of finality.
    Thirdly, one boy is a person, millions of starving people are numbers. We find it easier to care about people when we can personalize the issue. Aid agencies have long known this, as programs that try to pair donors to individual poor children for aid assistance play on that feeling. They give you a face, a name, and encourage correspondence all so the desire to help will be less likely to waver. One boy with a heart problem – a boy with a face and a name – is someone we can feel for. Seven submariners, whose faces and names we can all learn and whose worried wives and children we can see on TV are more real than millions of starving people.
    Fourthly, we can identify more with the plight of the sailors than the starving. If you are in the military or have ever served or know anyone who ever has, you can understand what it would be like to be one of those sailors or one of their loved ones. But even if you have traveled to visit the people who are starving in Niger, they remain people whose plight you cannot imagine really being your own or that of the people closest to you. My cousin is in the Canadian navy. One of my grandfathers was killed in WWII aboard a ship that was sunk. It is very easy for me to personalize sailors stranded in a submarine than those dying of extreme poverty, even though I also lived and worked in a very poor African country for a year.
    Fifthly, just a point about what I think is not a significant reason here. I don’t think racism is a big issue. Djamshid Popal is not white, yet Canadians cared about being able to help him. There are lots of people who are white and citizens of our own countries right here at home who are extremely poor, yet they don’t make much news often. Furthermore, if racism were a big issue we should see black Canadians and Americans showing far more concern for Niger than for the submarine, and I don’t see that this is the case.
    Finally, I am reminded of an episode of The West Wing where the President has to deal simultaneously with a possible truckers strike, an FBI negotiator being shot, and a hurricane bearing down on naval vessels. At one point the First Lady explains to a staffer that the reason that the President is in a room “pistol whipping” the trucking industry is because he can’t perform surgery to remove a bullet and he can’t stop a hurricane. We focus on the situations we think we can do something about because it can be too awful to focus on what we cannot accomplish. The submarine was rescued. The story has a happy ending and we can all feel good about that. But the poor will be with us always. And even if we can make their numbers smaller, they are still just numbers to us, ones that signal are inability to claim a total victory.

  2. Follow up — Talk about coincidences, but after being out of the news for almost a year, Djamshid Popal is back again today for the first time. And sadly, things are not going well for him. So much for finality.
    Here is the story: Boy who underwent heart surgery in Canada could die in Afghanistan: father. I predict in the days to come there will be more and a growing movement to allow him to come and live in Canada permanently. I also won’t be surprised if he gets more coverage than Niger. That’s just how our sympathies work, for better or worse.

  3. A nice post. I agree with the sentiment you express in your opening paragraph, that our moral ends are usually better served simply by paying attention to the right sorts of things, rather than by holding the right beliefs. After all, we usually already have a good idea which would be the more exigent problems to address (and even have a fairly good idea of how to address them), if only we had full awareness.
    What strikes me as interesting about your example is how well it resists another more often cited reason for holding moral attention:
    (g) NARRATIVE INTEREST.
    Usually, we hear, morally salient events are much more likely to loom larger in our heads if they are presented in some kind of narrative fashion, linking sequences of events to specific people. We are more appalled by a bit of policy negligence that might be responsible for the crash of a specific airplane than by (for example) the large numbers of fatal accidents that seem to be a byproduct of higher speed limits.
    Your example seems to resist this explanation, though. It is true that the narrative account of the Russian submarine is a bit more readily accessible for news consumption than the famine in Niger, since news of the former comes pre-packaged in a steady stream of updates from the various militaries and other government organs. But for every major famine, there is never a shortage of journalists who try to humanize the famine by giving a personal account of some one or two of its vicitims (somehow I always think of Nicholas Kristoff here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were in Niger as we speak). And yet despite these efforts, the news never catches fire like trapped submarines or children in wells. Somehow the story of a starving person, or starving family, in Niger does not sustain our attention like the latter sorts of stories do. So, it seems, we have to turn to one of your less happy alternatives for an explanation.

  4. I’d add:
    (h) NOW IT’S PERSONAL: one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
    This is effectively David’s third point above, but I think it’s worth highlighting. I’d be curious to hear whether others think this unfortunate aspect of human psychology is malleable.

  5. Richard: “NOW IT’S PERSONAL: one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
    “I’d be curious to hear whether others think this unfortunate aspect of human psychology is malleable.”
    Two things: Firstly, I’m not sure that it is as unfortunate as it is necessary. If we felt as sympathetically for each of a million people killed by famine as we often do for individual strangers who suffer, we would cease to be able to effectively function. Without such a buffer, we’d never stop crying long enough to do anything at all.
    Secondly, there is ample evidence that this aspect of human psychology is malleable enough to allow us to care enough about struggling masses to do something about their plight. True, not everyone devotes their life to the causes of the ill and starving around the world, but some do. And still others are willing to do enough such that if everyone did that much these problems could be solved. The examples of those among us who do the most for the masses in need suggest that we can care enough to make a difference, even if we don’t care as much as we would for the tragedy of an isolated individual and even if at present we collectively have not risen to that mark.

  6. Regarding David W.’s most recent comment: We ought to distinguish between a sense of moral obligation to help, on the one hand, from all the other sorts of emotional/empathic responses people might have to others’ suffering, on the other. It is true that, in many cases, we need a “buffer” to protect us from the latter sorts of responses; we should not expect someone to cry an equal amount for each of one million famine victims. But I think what is interesting is that so many of us seem not to recognize any obligations whatsoever when one million people are starving. It is, I think, much more difficult to explain this failure to recognize obligation, than it is to explain the (perfectly reasonable and necessary) failure to respond emotionally to each and every starving person’s misery.
    A further question: Regarding the numbers, is there a cut-off point? For instance: Is it the case that if the number of victims were 7 or less, we would feel a pressing obligation to help, but if the number of victims were 7 or more, we would feel no obligation at all? Or does our sense of obligation simply diminish gradually as the numbers grow? Or does something else happen between (e.g.) 7 and 1,000,000 victims?

  7. Justin stole my thunder by introducing the category of narrative interest, but I think it has more explanatory force in this case than he allows for. What, after all, makes for an interesting story? We can isolate some abstract elements (as countless narratologists, structuralists, and scriptwriters have done before): something out of the ordinary happens; something important is at stake; there are identifiable actors (heroes, victims, helpers, opponents); the hero faces a series of challenging tasks and comes up with creative, perhaps surprising solutions; the problem is resolved in a finite time; and everybody goes back to the ordinary life, perhaps a little bit wiser (unless it’s a tragedy, in which case the hero’s flaws prevent him or her from solving the problem, or it is unsolvable). I thought about Lord of the Rings, Hamlet, Kill Bill, Exodus, and Bridget Jones as test cases, but really, at this level of abstraction the above elements should be easily found in (at least) many interesting stories.
    Still, it’s not a trivial schema: many of the elements either don’t exist or are hard to find in the Niger story, and that explains why it doesn’t appeal to us as a story. There is certainly something important at stake, but that’s about it. Starvation has, sadly, become business as usual, we don’t understand it well enough to know who are the bad guys or the good guys (there’s only victims), there seem to be no creative, surprising solutions available, just hard day-to-day work (which is the opposite of a story worth telling), and the end of the story, insofar as there is one, is so predictably dismal that it hardly even makes for a tragedy – there is no cathartic effect, the suffering is hardly edifying for us. How could this sell newspapers or TV ad space?
    Contrast with the Russian sub, where you’ll find a lot of the elements in place, plus some Aristotelian desiderata, like unity of time and place. The clock is ticking, there is an urgency, it’s a challenge that’s going to be either a triumph or a tragedy, the mankind’s finest are doing their best with the latest technology, and so on. We’ve got the beginning, middle, and end, heroes, victims, and opponents (nature). It’s not perfect, it won’t make a movie, but it’s clearly more tellable than the famine case on perfectly general narrative criteria – even if one acknowledges that much, much more is at stake in the starvation. Because of the structural features, the sub story is more attractive even if there’s no racism and even if we don’t care more about the sailors than the hungry children – we care more about their story, but not necessarily about them.
    So what to do to save the children? It seems to me that there are two alternatives: either fit the story in the narrative frame, or arrange things so that the aid is independent of the interest of the public. I’m sure that well-meaning people who recognize the problem have tried the first one, but it doesn’t look like there has been much success. (However, on a related topic, Hotel Rwanda was a quite successful effort in framing the story of an African civil war in a way that made it narratively comprehensible and interesting. I don’t think it was essential that Europeans were playing a minor role – insofar as identification was important, you could identify with the African characters just as well.) In the short term, at least, we should therefore probably just acknowledge that moral interest doesn’t alone amount to narrative interest, and correspondingly interest of the public, and make sure that foreign policy is based on the former rather than the latter.

  8. Big issue, Michael – also mystifies and bothers me frequently.
    How about:
    (i) CULTURAL PROXIMITY. The Russian look like us (as in UGGLY), yes, but they are also more like us in a myriad of social and cultural ways.
    and:
    (j) THE BANALITY OF EVIL
    as per Arendt’s analysis of how a passionless chap like Eichmann could so readily be roped into executing the horrible agenda of his time.
    My hunch is that the explanation is a combination of (i), (j), and something like the first half of (b), the FUTILITY half.
    But I don’t think that quite gets to the bottom of things.

  9. I wonder if it isn’t related to a crunch/crisis distinction (As drawn by Garrett Hardin)
    Namely our media focuses on Crisis because the plot has one of the most obvious neccesary elements of a good story, namely a clear and discrete end point.
    Furthermore the audiovisual nature of our news media (And if youre interested by this claim I’d suggest reading Neil Postman and Murray Edelman) is best suited to present short stories rather than novels.
    Given this Crisis is more interesting…

  10. This is an interesting post. Today’s NY Times addresses the question and interestingly adds to the list of factors the particular UN system of funding hunger/disaster relief. This might lead us to ask what motivates us to settle for a weak international organization rather than an organization with more authority to raise funds, mandate member states to participate in relief, or other remedies. The link is here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/12/international/africa/12aid.html?hp&ex=1123905600&en=a5587999f2dde690&ei=5094&partner=homepage

  11. May I add another possible explanation to Michael Cholbi’s question?
    The crisis in Niger was predicted about a year ago. It was also clear what would be needed to prevent it into developping into the present disaster. What was needed was a concerted and coordinated effort on behalf of donor countries and NGOs, who were all lacking funds and energy at the time. (I doubt things are much different now.) In other words, a massive collective undertaking. Such undertakings are difficult. First, it is difficult to coordinate them for all kinds of obvious reasons.
    Secondly, and this is the explanation I proffer, it is extremely difficult to get people to commit to donate time, energy and money to such massive relief campaigns because of the collective good problems involved. Each agent assesses the likelihood of others contributing in deciding whether and how much to contribute. “I am willing to contribute but only if (sufficiently many) others are as well. I doubt they will, therefore, I won’t commit to this campaign.” Note that I am not saying that people are egoists. However, people are interested in the results of their actions. They assess the likelihood of success against the background of what they believe others will do. We see this kind of reasoning across the board, whether it is in tax compliance, traffic rules, and, sadly, aid.
    Now we do this all the time. Not just in response to the plight of the inhabitants of Niger (Nigerians? Nigers?). Who is outraged by the plight of homeless people in big cities? Yet we see them almost on a daily basis?!? It is just that one person alone cannot make a difference and we believe others will not help.
    I suspect that we undergo some sort of dissonance reduction in cases like this, where the dissonance is between the (moral) desirability of successful aid campaigns and the belief they won’t be successful. The way to reduce the dissonance is by shifting your attention. Similarly, hardly anybody’s attention is on the homeless, etc.
    It is then also clear what does get people to focus their moral attention on big crises (e.g., the Tsunami disaster). When there are mechanisms in play that let us believe that a lot of others are also focussed on the disaster in question and will effectively contribute. Think of the successes of Live Aid (Live8? life8?). That explains why it is so important to get high-profiled people to publicly pledge large sums of money as soon as possible: it helps the spread of the belief that ‘something is being done’ and thus reduce the skepsis that other agents will contribute time, energy or money.
    It is either something like this, or I have to accept that CNN is indeed determining our moral consciousness.

  12. I think moral exhibitionism plays some roll in selection of media stories. We all want to think of ourselves as moral and good people, even if we’re not. People tend to gravitate toward narratives which cast them, or a proxy of the self, in a positive light.
    The story of the Aghani boy in Canada getting a needed surgery plays directly to moral exhibitionist tendencies. One thinks, “What an enlightened and charitable people we are!” Thereby sharing in the collective good feeling. Likewise the Russian sub story. “What good and selfless people we are to help a striken former enemy.” Cue swelling music.
    The Niger famine, however, is a bad story from a moral exhibitionist standpoint. The Western nations do little or nothing to prevent or allieviate the suffering of the Nigerians. One cannot derive moral satisfaction from a failure. Nor is there are reasonable prospect for future success. The media better serves their readership’s moral vanities by ignoring it after a respectable mention; it makes people feel bad about themselves, and we can’t have that.

  13. It’s something called the “identifiable victim effect,” which has been the topic of increasing literature in the last decade or so.

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