Loran Nordgren of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School finds a "scope-severity paradox" exists -- judgment of harm tends to be based on emotional reactions and people have a stronger emotional response to singular identifiable victims rather than to an entire crowd of sufferers.
"We see this time and again on the news, where a missing person is featured as a leading story for months because there is emotional interest wrapped up in that single individual," Nordgren says in a statement. "But, if you think of current stories such as the Chilean miners or the people affected by the BP oil spill, we find that it's harder to relate to those victims unless you get to know their personal stories."
The researchers asked study participants to read a story about a financial adviser who defrauded his clients -- half the time, the story described how only two or three people were harmed, and the other half dozens of people were harmed.
Participants were asked to evaluate the severity of the crime and to recommend a punishment. Participants in the small-scope condition judged the case more harshly and recommended a longer jail sentence.
The findings are published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science.