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Stalin, Mother Teresa, and Rob Portman: What do they have in common?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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File:Rob Portman portrait.jpg

Courtesy of the U.S. Senate via Wikimedia Commons

Rob Portman, Republican senator from Ohio and one-time contender for Romney’s would-be VP slot, announced on Friday that he has reversed his very public stance against gay marriage. As the well-known conservative stated in an Op-Ed piece on Friday, he now believes that “if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married.”

What’s the reason behind this seemingly sudden change of heart? According to Portman, it can all be credited to his son, Will — an openly gay 21-year-old man who came out of the closet to his conservative father two years ago.

This seems very similar to other political idiosyncrasies that we’ve seen in the past when there are family members involved. Dick Cheney’s support of gay marriage within an otherwise conservative platform is largely due to his love for his lesbian daughter, Mary. And these two politicians’ positions on gay marriage are not all that different from the political views of Sarah Palin, mother of a disabled child who is opposed to all government spending — except, of course, when that spending is earmarked for programs benefiting disabled children.

These views have often been criticized by the media, given snarky names, and demeaned as narcissistic or self-centered. And sure, it is certainly possible that these politicians (and the many others like them) are consciously picking and choosing their political platforms in a selfish way to maximize self-interest. However, considering what we know about social psychology, it’s fairly short-sighted to assume that these political about-faces are always the conscious result of these intentionally selfish motives. More likely, they are actually the result of a common psychological phenomenon that impacts all of our decisions — the identifiable victim effect.

Broadly speaking, the identifiable victim effect states one thing: Individual stories will have a far greater sway on our attitudes, intentions, and behavior than any long list of numbers, statistics, and facts. For example, if you see an ad for Save the Children with a picture of a single, emaciated Malian child named Rokia, you will donate significantly more to the charity (about 50% more, on average) than if you see a message listing the statistics about how many people are starving throughout all of Africa.

So why do individual stories have such a greater pull on us than statistics — especially when, rationally, learning about millions of people being impacted by something should impact your attitudes and actions much more than hearing about just one?

First of all, these individual stories are vivid. Stories about people are graphic, full of individual details, and typically involve strong visual imagery. Similarly, our experiences with close loved ones are vivid; we know a lot about their lives and individual personalities, and we come into frequent contact with them. Decades of research has informed us that vivid information has a much stronger influence on what people think and believe than dull, boring statistics. Even if the facts themselves are supposed to be “shocking,” numbers on a page will never hit us at the same vivid level as a picture of a wounded puppy or a video of a crying little girl. Pure information will never really impact us in the same way that seeing something happen to our friends or loved ones will.

Secondly, in addition to being vivid and full of graphic details, individual accounts are emotional, and emotion is an invaluable component of persuasion. For example, men and women asked to donate money to support the charity March of Dimes would consistently donate more money if they were asked outside of a church as they walked in to confession (aka while they felt fairly guilty) than if they were asked when they were walking out of confession (aka when their guilt had already been resolved). We use emotions as a cue for what we should think and do. If you feel guilty? Do something good to resolve it. If you feel happy? Do something good to maintain that positive state. Without even realizing it, our emotions will sway our attitudes and actions — and no facts or numbers will manage to hit our emotions as strongly as an individual story of heartache and woe, or the thoughts, feelings, and lives of the people that we love and care about. In fact, as I’ve written about before, there are entire lines of research devoted to informing us about all of the ways in which our emotions impact our moral and political judgments. (Spoiler Alert: They impact them a lot.)

So what does a bunch of research on Mali, March of Dimes, and starving children have to do with Portman’s new attitude towards gay marriage? Well, it will all click together once we realize that the broad logic underlying the identifiable victim effect is not necessarily about the presence of “victims” themselves. Rather, the main point is that it’s harder to work up the empathy and the emotional connection to care about numbers and figures to the point where they will actually sway your opinions and political actions. Plenty of journalists have remarked recently that Portman is showing a lack of empathy because he couldn’t bring himself to care about other people’s children. Maybe so — and, certainly, there are plenty of people whose attitudes towards important political issues aren’t solely determined by the lives and interests of their friends and family. After all, you can certainly be in favor of legalizing gay marriage without being closely related to someone who is gay. But even so, the fact remains that it’s much easier to become emotionally invested in a cause when there’s a name and a face tied to it — especially when that name and that face belong to someone who is particularly close to you. The more you’re emotionally invested in something, the more you can identify a single person being impacted by the issue in vivid, emotional detail — and the more likely that person is to sway your attitudes.

What this means is that the tendency for people like Portman and Cheney to only care about gay marriage once they have children who are affected, or the tendency for people like Palin to support government spending on a cause that would impact her own son, is not out of the ordinary. In fact, it’s a core aspect of human cognitive biases. Of course issues that impact your own family members are going to have a greater pull on your beliefs and political attitudes. They are going to involve individual people, they are going to be more vivid, and they will be more emotional. It doesn’t have to be knowingly selfish, and it doesn’t have to involve conscious self-interest (although it could). But, to give these three (and the many others like them) the benefit of the doubt, it could simply be that they, like most others, don’t receive the emotional pull from numbers and figures that they do from close family members.

The point is, regardless of political affiliation, it’s not necessarily a sign of narcissism or selfishness if someone is susceptible to the effects of identifiable victims or individual stories. It’s just a cognitive bias that all of us face, which we need to be aware of if we wish to understand why people make certain exceptions to their political beliefs and how we can get people to care about certain political issues if they are not closely related to anyone being affected by them. It’s certainly not out of the ordinary for people to fall victim to identifiable victims. So, if you are a Republican and you wish to defend Portman from people claiming that he lacks empathy, it should comfort you to know that his empathic response is actually incredibly normal. And, if you are a Democrat and you are arguing that it angers you when politicians like Portman only hold empathic views for issues that personally impact them, you should know that it’s now your job, if you wish to be an effective persuader, to figure out how to create identifiable stories and vivid accounts for the issues that you care about, rather than relying on numbers and figures and wondering why they don’t evoke a more powerful reaction from politicians.

After all, the identifiable victim effect isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even Mother Teresa fell victim to it. As she put it, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Of course, Stalin also noted that “the death of a single Russian soldier is a tragedy, [whereas] a million deaths is a statistic.” But, eh — let’s stick with quoting Mother Teresa.

For More On The Identifiable Victim Effect:

Dan Ariely: The Identifiable Victim Effect in Action

Andy Goodman (at Contributions Magazine): Stories or Data: Which Makes the Stronger Case?

Nicholas Kristof: Save the Darfur Puppy


Nisbett, R. E., & Ross, L. (1980). “Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgment.” Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jenni, K.E., & Loewenstein, G. (1997). Explaining the identifiable victim effect. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14, 235-257 DOI: 10.1016/S0167-6687(97)89155-X

Slovic, P. (2007). ‘If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act’: Psychic Numbing and Genocide. Judgment and Decision Making, 2, 79-95 DOI: 10.1037/e718332007-003

Harris, M.B., Benson, S.M., & Hall, C.L. (1975). The effects of confession on altruism. The Journal of Social Psychology, 96, 187-192 PMID: 1186138

Batson, C. (1990). How social an animal? The human capacity for caring. American Psychologist, 45 (3), 336-346 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.45.3.336

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Hraefn 3:36 pm 03/18/2013

    Perhaps the take home point may be that we often expect too much of our elected officials. I think what has frustrated many, myself included, is that we expect those who hold elected office in the US to possess empathy above and beyond the norm, since the very purpose of their existence is to represent the interests of others and to speak on their behalf. That is an idealized view, and perhaps not always an accurate one, but people appear to maintain that expectation all the same. We maintain the illusion that we should be represented by the best of us.

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  2. 2. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 3:49 pm 03/18/2013

    That is an excellent point. I actually do think that it is reasonable for us to expect our elected officials to represent “the best” of us, and to avoid the normal cognitive traps and biases of human nature. I just think that where the problem comes in is when no one involved realizes what exactly those biases *are* — if you don’t know about them, you can’t really avoid or supersede them.

    I was actually thinking about this point a lot when reading the commentary about Portman around the Internet over the past few days. To me, it seems so obvious that this is “identifiable victim effect” at work, so for me the clear solution is to regularly call attention to individual stories/accounts to make this bias work for you (since that’s a much more realistic goal than erasing a human cognitive bias altogether). Coming from a Psych PhD perspective, that seems obvious. And I mean, there is a certain basic knowledge of this in the political community, hence why you see references to “Joe The Plumber” and “a single, working mom of five that I met in Iowa” all the time during debates. But then I read commentary like Krugman’s on how Portman lacks basic empathy because he can’t think about the fact that the millions of people he reads about are other people’s children, and I realize…oh my gosh, maybe they really don’t know. They don’t know that this is normal, that this is how we work. They don’t even know that this isn’t a “lack of empathy” — this is just how our brains work.

    In fact, what I’m tempted to think this point indicates is that it would be incredibly beneficial for all people in any sort of official capacity, be they politicians, CEOs, or what have you, to obtain some sort of education on basic cognitive/psychological science, so there’s a greater awareness of heuristics and biases. You can’t expect someone who doesn’t know about the identifiable victim effect to be able to override those impulses and act rationally or in the best interest of a large number of people. But if someone does know about it, it’s more reasonable to expect them to be aware of this tendency and then work to correct for it. Does that make sense?

    Or maybe that’s just my own, pro-behavioral-science bias at work… ;)

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  3. 3. davenussbaum 9:26 pm 03/18/2013

    Hi Melanie, love the new digs!

    It’s an interesting thought on Portman, but I think you have to go farther than the identifiable victim on this one. Yes, having his son come out as gay certainly makes the issues of marriage equality more vivid for Senator Portman, and that may be part of the story. But he could have sat down with the identical person, though not his son, and would likely have failed to come around to the same conclusion.

    Because it’s his son, he’s actually been forced to grapple with the issue. He’s been forced to empathize and recognize the costs borne by those to whom he had been denying equality. He’s been forced to confront the cognitive dissonance between the fact that he believes his son should have (at least) the same rights as anyone else and the fact that as a gay man he would be denied those rights. He’s been forced, as with the identifiable victim effect, to deal with the suffering his policies cause in the concrete, rather than in the abstract.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’m on board with you part way — making the victim identifiable goes some part of the way towards making numbers and concepts real, and once they are real they are harder to dismiss or ignore. But to effect a major conversion, like Portman’s, or Cheney’s, you need more than just an identifiable victim. You need to reach a point where you are no longer able to reconcile your political beliefs with the facts of your life. There’s a lot of ideology (and political pressure) to overcome.

    On the flip side, what the dramatic shift in people’s beliefs about gay marriage tells us is that you’re right. Once people started to recognize that there were gay people all around them, that they knew, and respected, and loved, they found it much harder to stereotype them or to deny them equal rights. But the conclusion, to my eyes, is not that people like Portman are dealing with ordinary cognitive biases. Certainly, they are. But as elected officials, sworn to defend the constitution and represent all their constituents, it’s not enough to remain (willfully) ignorant of the individuals whose rights you would deny.

    It shouldn’t take a close family member being gay to recognize that gays are people. It shouldn’t take a spouse with Alzheimer’s to recognize the value of stem cell research. It shouldn’t take a daughter who got pregnant in high school to recognize that abortion is not an absolute evil. It shouldn’t take a sick child to recognize that people without health insurance are not moochers. But again and again, we see officials buck their party’s orthodoxy in these narrow instances, while remaining oblivious to the problems that don’t affect someone close to them. As someone tweeted following the Portman story, we should arrange for Portman to also have a son that is poor.

    Elected officials should be making sure that the identifiable victim effect doesn’t have to show up at their doorstep to be recognized. But you’re right, just because this is the way it should be, it’s not the way it is, and people who would persuade politicians would be wise to take a look at the literature in psychology and behavioral science more broadly.

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  4. 4. donfit 9:47 pm 03/18/2013

    I understand the point that this article is making, but don’t believe it provides a credible rationalization for the change of heart. In a position of leadership, especially in politics, an individual must be empathetic enough (if not altruistic) to understand other’s viewpoints without the necessity of the identifiable victim effect. I further believe that the lack of this ability is a fundamental mental aptitude issue and should certainly rule out the possibility of holding public office.

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  5. 5. hanmeng 9:56 pm 03/18/2013

    Sometimes helping a clearly visible victim leads to hurting others. For instance, tariffs on imported steel may protect the jobs of Americans who produce more expensive steel, but the much larger number of those who work for consumers of steel will not have jobs because they can’t afford the more expensive steel.

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  6. 6. SachiNewDelhi 11:39 pm 03/18/2013

    Sam Harris includes some of this stuff in his “standard” talk about the moral landscape and how science can tell us how to be moral and how our moral intuitions can be wrong.

    Mother Teresa was a self-promoter who took money from dictators and other dubious characters. Christopher Hitchens and Aroup Chatterjee have both debunked her.

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  7. 7. jbairddo 8:28 am 03/19/2013

    Politicians want to get reelected, it is their job. In doing so they must convince themselves the BS their party spews matters and doing so gets them elected.
    Republicans = family values. Do you take more hits as a family guy disowning your son (tough as a dad) and getting the religious right vote or standing up for him and getting the family vote. The issue is so far more complex but it appears limited by the media’s take on stuff. Ultimately Cheney appeared more human or less an ahole and reaped some benefit, so will Portman. The interesting thing would be whether he becomes more reasonable in other die hard republican concerns (BTW-I am not republican or dem, I hate both sides equally and think they exist only to convince us we need them).

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  8. 8. Weekend Reading for Financial Advisers: Jeremy Grantham, Steve Jobs, and Marshmallows | Enterprising Investor 1:54 am 03/29/2013

    [...] some flexibility on the issue before he knew that his own family would benefit?”) In “Stalin, Mother Teresa, and Rob Portman: What Do They Have in Common?” the writer explains the cognitive bias toward caring more about people you know. (Scientific [...]

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  9. 9. Weekend Reading for Financial Advisers: Jeremy Grantham, Steve Jobs, and … | 11:29 am 03/29/2013

    [...] had shown some flexibility on the issue before he knew that his own family would benefit?”) In “Stalin, Mother Teresa, and Rob Portman: What Do They Have in Common?” the writer explains the cognitive bias toward caring more about people you know. (Scientific [...]

    Link to this

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