Thursday, February 2

The scope-severity paradox

Dear Son

Here is something that you will find interesting. What this experiment shows is that people dont really take large numbers on board. In other words, a large number, more than 30 or even more, just becomes a statistic in people's minds. Stalin said something very interesting, A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic. There is also an old old joke, the subject keeps on changing:

The President and his Vice President are sitting in a bar.
A guy walks in, sees them and asks the barman, "Isn't that the President and the Vice President sitting over there?"
The bartender says, "Yep, that's them."
So the guy walks over and says, "Wow, this is a real honour! What are you guys doing in here?"
Bush says, "We're planning World War Three."
And the guy says, "Really? What's going to happen?"
Bush says, "Well, we're going to kill 140 million guys and one blonde with big hair."
The guy exclaimed, "A blonde with big hair? Why would you kill a blonde with big hair?"
The President turns to the VP and says, "See, I told you no one would care about 140 million guys".

People are very nervous about large numbers, so you have to recognise this factor and use it to your advantage. For example, you are going to do Maths and Further Mathematics in your A levels. Have you noticed the reactions of people when you say that? They are impressed, they go, wow. Why? because these people cannot comprehend somebody actually understanding large numbers. If you want to become a banker or a diplomat or whatever, use this to your advantage, be very comfortable with large numbers and realise how people react negatively to this.

A related item to this is to always talk in terms of bullet points, if somebody asks you to explain something to them, say ONE and then one factor, say  TWO and then the next factor, dont just run along and mix them all. If you bullet them, and then tick them off using your fingers, you come across as a person with an impregnable explanation. Also, people cannot keep more than 3-4 separate items in their head, so always push more than 3-4 factors.

Its very interesting reading anyway, Son.

The scope-severity paradox

The scope-severity paradox
Anikó Sebestény
Sunday, 30 October 2011
Blog, Anikó’s blog

Do criminals deserve a less severe punishment if they harmed more people ?

Most people would almost certainly answer “no”. Of course: punishment should be sensitive to the severity of the crime. That’s what we usually think.

Yet in a compelling paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in August 2010, Loran F. Nordgren and Mary-Hunter Morris McDonnell found that increasing the number of people victimized by a crime actually decreases the perceived severity of that crime and leads people to recommend less punishment.

The scope-severity paradox presented in the article is indeed astonishing. The paper is also exemplary in how beautifully it combines lab experiments and analysis of real-world data.

The authors conducted experiments to test the effect. 60 participants were asked about the severity of a crime. A financial advisor has betrayed his clients, how severe is his crime, how many years of jail should he get? The astonishing (and robust) result is that the crime is seen as significantly less serious when there are 30 victims rather than 3. When asked about how participants imagine one of the victims, participants gave an average of 3 traits less in the case of 30 victims than in the case of 3 victims, showing that their representation is much more vivid in the case of less victims. According to the authors, this difference in the vividness of how the victim is represented accounts for the paradox.

The authors then turned to archival data to demonstrate that the scope-severity paradox is a robust, real-world effect. They collected archival data of actual jury verdicts concerning 136 cases of poisoning in the U.S. spanning over a 10-year period from 2000 to 2009. They found that juries required defendants to pay higher punitive damages when their negligent behavior harmed fewer people.

The authors then returned to the lab and tried to find a way to reduce the effect. It appears that by making victims more individually identifiable, the effect is reduced. Having identifiable victims makes people not give less punishment to the criminals harming more people. And yet, they still don’t give more punishment to the criminals harming more people: they just give the same punishment, regardless of the number of victims.

I suggest that there may be a strong connection with Susan Carey’s work on learning mathematics: there is a bootstrapping process going on when children learn to deal with 3, then with 4, then with 5. It may well be that the bootstrapping process is never entirely complete, and we don’t have, even as adults, a very clear concept of 30, or at least it is far less clear than our concept of 3. Imagining 100 tables appears much more difficult to me than imagining 5. Imagining 100 real people probably goes beyond my cognitive capacities.

Can this effect at least partially explain why the world, or at least the media pay so much more attention to single criminals than to institutions who fraud and harm hundreds or thousands of people?

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