I see, therefore I care

My recipe for Ratatouille varies based on where my basil leaves come from.

I’m usually quite liberal with flavouring. If the basil leaves were to come off a packet, I would have no qualms is emptying the whole bunch into the dish. If I harvest them from a live basil plant that we bought from the supermarket, I use the leaves more sparingly.

Clearly, my beahaviour here is driven more by emotion than by reason. Both the basil plant as well as the packaged leaves came from the supermarket. The packaged leaves were once a plant too. Yet, having to pluck the leaves myself alters my behaviour.

This leads us to a well known psychological principle. In an experiment, Paul Slovic and his team asked people to donate for a worthy cause based on the magnitude of the crisis. For instance, their per-capita donations towards a tragedy with 1 victim was compared to another tragedy with 8 victims. As the number of victims went up, these donation went down. Yes, you read that correctly.

This absurd result is rooted in how our brains work. When we think of 1 starving child, we can picture a poor little boy who has to work with hunger burning in his belly even as his more fortunate peers complain about having to learn trigonometry. But if we were to try and picture a thousand or a million starving children, our brain is unable to invoke the imagery necessary to do justice to this greater tragedy. Slovic conducted the experiment again with a picture of one victim as a ‘face’ for the tragedy and this increased the amount of donations. It isn’t without reason that most charity appeals feature one victim as representative of the masses that are affected by the tragedy.

This principle applies not just to mass tragedies. The crisis we are going through helps us better appreciate the lives of healthcare workers, delivery personnel and supermarket employees merely because their professions have had increased attention. It turns out that we didn’t care enough about their valuable contribution during ordinary times. It then becomes the duty of the large organizations that they work for to give their customers a peek behind the scenes into the hard work that goes into getting a supermarket shelf stacked or having a package delivered to your doorstep at the click of a button.

I see, therefore I care. The corollary here is that if I do not show my work, nobody will care.

Related: Psychological distance is the first episode of The Work Brain, a podcast I co-host with a behavioural scientist.

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