The identifiable victim effect in action
On Sept 14th 2008 the front page on the New York Times described some of the outcomes of Hurricane Ike as it traveled across Texas. In the previous 24 hours, Hurricane Ike distorted much of Galveston with a wall of water, flooding numerous coastal towns and leaving extensive damage across Houston. From the report it was clear that a few people died as a consequence of Hurricane Ike but it was not yet clear how many people died. It was clear however, that thousands and thousands are now homeless, that over three million people were left without electricity, and that the devastation has been incredible.
On the same day a small website called courant.com posted a story about Mark Schneider — a young man who recently graduated from Yale, and was getting ready to leave his home town to begin his graduate studies at Stanford University. The story described a 911 call in which the dispatcher could hear Mrs. Schneider being slapped and her say, “Mark, you hit me. I’m bleeding.” The dispatcher heard a second slap noise and another call for help. The officer who arrived two minutes later and saw Mrs Schneider, covered in blood, in her front yard with her son Mark hitting her on the head with wooden baseball bat. The police officer drew his pistol and ordered Mark to stop, but Mark struck his mother in the head again and again until the officer was able to use his Taser and Mark dropped to the ground. Mrs, Schneider was rushed to Hartford Hospital for treatment of two broken forearms and a skull fracture, while Mark was taken to the police headquarters, and from there to the psychiatric unit at the local Hospital.
I was deeply saddened after reading these reports, but the story that I could not get out of my head for the next few days, was not the large devastation of Hurricane Ike, it was the tragedy of the Schneider family. Why was I more upset with the tragedy that by any objective measure was in fact smaller? The reason is due to what Psychologists have labeled “the identifiable victim effect,” where the effect of one individual, identifiable, victim who is known in full detail can evoke a much deeper feelings, emotions and sympathy than a large group of anonymous individuals (think about this yourself: who is your heart going more toward the victims of Hurricane Ike or Mrs Schneider?). On top of this general effect, in my case the identifiable victim effect is particularly strong for me since I have met Mark Schneider multiple times, and in fact I was so impressed with him that I was hoping that he would come and be my student (but he eventually chose Stanford over me).
In many ways the identifiable victim effect is a very sad effect because it means that the attention we will pay to different tragedies around us, will not be based on their objective level of tragedy but instead on the way in which they invoke emotions in us. This also means that sometimes the tragedy of one person can overshadow the tragedy of millions. Yet knowing this is not helpful as I still cannot get the images of Mark and his mother out of my head.