Identifiable victim effect

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The identifiable victim effect is the tendency of individuals to offer greater aid when a specific, identifiable person ("victim") is observed under hardship, as compared to a large, vaguely defined group with the same need.[1]

The identifiable victim effect has two components. People are more inclined to help an identified victim than an unidentified one, and people are more inclined to help a single identified victim than a group of identified victims. Although helping an identified victim may be commendable, the identifiable victim effect is considered a cognitive bias. From a consequentialist point of view, the cognitive error is the failure to offer N times as much help to N unidentified victims.

The identifiable victim effect has a mirror image that is sometimes called the identifiable perpetrator effect. Research has shown that individuals are more inclined to mete out punishment, even at their own expense, when they are punishing a specific, identified perpetrator.[2]

The conceptualization of the identifiable victim effect as it is known today is commonly attributed to American economist Thomas Schelling. He wrote that harm to a particular person invokes “anxiety and sentiment, guilt and awe, responsibility and religion, [but]…most of this awesomeness disappears when we deal with statistical death”.[3]

Historical figures from Joseph Stalin to Mother Teresa are credited with statements that epitomize the identifiable victim effect. The remark "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic" is widely, although probably incorrectly, attributed to Stalin.[4] The remark "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will," is attributed to Mother Teresa.[5]

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