Tag Archives: heuristics

The Identifiable Victim Effect & Rational Helping

What inspires you to help? You’re certainly more motivated to contribute to causes which hold some particular significance to you, or which are connected to you in some meaningful way. You are also more likely to take action when you feel a sense of personal responsibility and you are provided with the resources necessary to make a difference. We like to think that, when we put our time, effort, and money towards something that we are doing so rationally. But are we?

Around a year back, the story of a group of young boys trapped in an underwater cave in Thailand received international attention and feverish round-the-clock coverage from global news media for nearly three weeks. Volunteer divers and specialists from around the world were flown in to help with the massive rescue effort. Story rights were bought to make a movie about the incident, with filming for The Cave apparently in production at the time of this post.

We might correctly praise the Thai cave rescue as an admirable example of human empathy, or of good people rising to the occasion to save lives, but it is also a prime example of the identifiable victim effect (IVE), whereby people contribute disproportionately to causes which feature a distinct beneficiary rather than an equal (or even greater) number of anonymous or statistical victims. According to a meta-analytic review by Seyoung Lee and Thomas Hugh Feeley, a major component of the IVE lies in the emotional response invoked, as observers are able to make genuine, sympathetic connections to, say, a child living on the street compared to the statistic that an estimated 2.5 million children in the US are homeless at any given time. Similarly, specificity also tends to imply greater perceived impact and responsibility, as volunteers will only stand to receive tangible outcomes on the individual level, finding a home for one identified child or seeing the twelve boys successfully brought to safety.

There are several mitigating factors which are worth noting at this point. For one, according to Lee and Feeley, the effect is strongest with a single individual, with a precipitous decline that tends to exclude groups from benefiting, making the cave rescue a rare case. They also found that the effect size tends to be conventionally small, though it is still significant enough to be of consideration in practical applications. Additionally, according to analysis by Tehila Kogut, only certain types of victims can be expected to gain from the IVE as a function of perceived responsibility for their condition. For example, individual children living in poverty or victims of uncontrollable circumstances like cancer or natural disasters are prime examples. On the other hand, homeless adults are much less likely to receive assistance under the same isolation, as they are then subject to other social judgments as being potentially to blame for their situation. This can also be seen in our example, where international support was given to the twelve boys, but less so to the assistant coach, who had guided the boys’ trip into the cave and was accused of negligence for placing them at risk despite minimal evidence to support this viewpoint.

Another study by Karen E. Jenni and George Loewenstein from 1997 systematically examined a few suggested contributing elements and concluded that the biggest factor they examined with the above considerations in mind was certainty. In the case of an identified victim or (less frequently) a group, there is an exact number of people at risk, whereas larger statistical risk groups lack this exactness. Jenni and Loewenstein inferred that there is an unconscious heuristic which gives preference to risks characterized by certainty over probabilistic risks. They argued that the effect could better be described for the percentage of potential victims which could be saved if action is taken, where the identified victim(s) form a mental reference group for themselves of which a much larger percentage can be saved. By contrast, significant effects were not found for the vividness of presentation and whether the presentation comes before or after the risk occurs.

So what does this tell us about helping behavior? First, as with many heuristics identified in cognitive psychology, the identified victim effect serves a practical purpose in simplifying the world around us, but leads to ‘irrational’ behavior in the victims we choose to prioritize when offering aid. Second, while the IVE does not occur in a vacuum and research shows that it is one of many factors at play in prosocial decision-making, it is arguably still useful for charity organizations to include identified victims on their donations pages. Lastly, it is important to be cognizant of the ways in which the heuristic is applied to sway public attitudes in the real world. We’ve seen that it can be used to draw attention to important issues, as with the Clery Act, a campus crime disclosure statute named for a college student who was raped and murdered in her residence hall. In other cases though, anecdotes about isolated victims can be used to draw attention away from larger statistical arguments in public policy debates, as with individual workers at risk of losing the jobs in trade deals which will create a greater number of statistical jobs.

Humanitarian Work and Heuristics

Over the course of the semester, we have often discussed heuristics and how they can affect our decision making in the real world. One person who has also been interested in the topics of heuristics and decision making is Paulo Goncalves, a professor at the University of Lugano in Switzerland and the academic Director Master of Advanced Studies in Humanitarian Logistics at MIT. In this essay, Goncalves describes how heuristics can impact decisions that are made in the very important area of humanitarian relief work. For instance, he conducted a study with his MBA students where half were told that 25% of a city’s structures were destroyed in an earthquake and the other half were told that 75% of the structures had been destroyed. After receiving this information, they were asked how many people needed assistance, how confident are you in your estimate (percentage), and generate a range for your estimate (minimum and maximum). Interestingly, Professor Goncalves found that the students who had previously been told that 25% of the cities structure had been destroyed gave far lower numbers to answer all three of the questions than students who had been told 75% of the cities structures had been destroyed. Mr. Goncalves describes this result as the anchoring and adjustment heuristic coming in to play. The students use the percentage of the city’s structures destroyed as an anchor for their answer, even though it is irrelevant to the questions of how many people will need assistance, their confidence in their estimate, and the range for their estimate. I think this study is interesting because it shows how important it is to understand when heuristics are having a negative impact on our decision-making, and to learn how to overcome them in those situations.

How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days

Don’t you just hate it when your significant other tells you no? This step by step how to will teach you how to get your live-in lover to do anything you want them to using a cognitive psychology.  We learned four ways in class to manipulate the simple minds of our significant others (SO) to get them to do anything and everything we want.  We do this using availability, anchoring and adjustment, representativeness, and competence.  The culmination of these cognitive mind games are called heuristics of judgement and decision making. Using these cognitive mind games will spoil you in that, you will always have your way.

Availability can be used by substituting an old memory for a new event.  Let’s say you wanna go to that pirate themed circus ballet coming into town and you need to convince your SO.  You can tell them that it was kinda like that super cool break dance competition you went to last spring or another event that will help them retrieve those previous events.  It’s hard to imagine an abstract event, so giving them a familiar event would increase your chances of getting them to do whatever you want to do!

Anchoring and adjustment can be used by creating an initial judgement (anchoring) but keeping in mind that the individual making the judgement will change that value to how they see fit (adjustment).  While buying tickets for that pirate themed circus ballet coming into town, of course you want good seats.  You could ask your SO, ‘how willing are you to pay $1,000 a seat?’ And according to anchoring and adjustment, aiming for a higher price range will allow for them to make adjustments and say, ‘……maybe $150’ when in reality, the seat you wanted only costed $100, win.  This heuristic works for both anteing up and down.

Representativeness can be used by betting on the fact that your SO isn’t very smart and has poor intuition and judgement.  It’s ok it happens to the best of us, but this time, it works in your favor!  Representativeness is when we judge based upon how much an example resembles (physically) to the category but the possibilities of it being an incorrect representation are under weighed.  For example, getting your SO to get to that pirate themed circus ballet coming into town, you could show them pictures of the performers doing breakdance tricks.  It seems as if those pictures would be a good representation of the show so your SO underweights the possibility that it could be a crazy pirate themed circus ballet while still having the slight possibility that you could possibly be going to a breakdance show.  

Last but not least of these cognitive manipulation heuristics is competency.  Competency is when you allow the individual to feel as if they have control of the situation, when it’s just an illusion because the events are actually random.  Similar to gamblers fallacy.  Get your SO to go to that pirate themed circus ballet coming into town by letting them win a couple fake fights nearing the show date.  Your SO just overestimated their chance of winning by going to this show (in your eyes they would be, duh, pirate themed circus ballet). This heuristic works for losing as well, that the individual thinks they have a higher chance of winning if they have lost so many times.

*These heuristics of judgement and decision making aren’t proven to be 100% effective.

Does trusting your instincts make sense?


As we grow up we develop instincts. These are mental habits that we posses which help us to make everyday choices. These are the kinds of choices that don’t involved much thought at all, they are almost automatic. These quick habits that are “deep-wired and govern our decisions” are heuristics. We’ve been talking about them recently in class and I wanted to find out a little more with what they mean exactly.

Author, Wray Herbert  just-published On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits. 

Herbert does in depth on how heuristics can help or hurt us with our everyday decisions. Many of us are coming to the end of our college careers and at this moment our everyday decisions have a big impact on what happens to us in the next 4 weeks.  Heuristics are helpful for survival, Herbert refers to them as “having deep ancient evolutionary origins.”  He then defines a few that can really mess us up if we aren’t careful.  When applying these to our lives right now there is the “familiarity heuristic” which is being extremely familiar with something that it seems a safe way to go or do. This heuristic leads us o sick with what we have already done and not switching it up. At this point I feel like a lot of us who have been in college for four years now are comfortable with where we are the the habits we have developed. But there is a turning point now where we can’t skip a class here and there just because we have before. We can’t not turn in something or risk doing poorly in a class because there is still another semester or year to make it up. We have to alter our choices to ensure our “survival” of college which ultimately leads to graduation.

Another heuristic is the “scarcity heuristic” which in Hebert’s words means, if something is rare, it’s perceived as more valuable.  This can be good in helping us make choices that we wouldn’t usually make like getting up to go to the gym because you know for the rest of the day you will be sitting down and not moving so the gym is “rare” occasion.

There are many on each side of the good and bad of heuristics. I believe that you should trust your instincts but also we self-aware of the environment or situation that you are in. There is a reason we have our “gut” instinct but we should also be able to stop sometimes and recognize when we need to slow down and not make impulsive decisions.