Sunday, January 17, 2010

Do we care more for some people than others

The unfathomable devastation and loss of the Haiti earthquake has sparked a huge outpouring of concern. Greater, in fact, than that evoked by natural disasters, including earthquakes, when they happen in places further away. Why does the Haitian disaster evoke so much more concern than massive killer earthquakes or natural disasters in Turkey or Bangladesh or China, people just as poor and powerless as those in Haiti? Shouldn't the same number of people anywhere evoke the same care?
Or are there things that are different with Haiti?

Can it simply be we are somehow more moved because Haiti is closer, which makes those people more "real".

Could it be that we relate more intimately to people, some of whose relatives live in the U.S.?

Could it be that because it's closer, and "our" media can get there, that the greater amount of coverage personifies the risk more. The risk perception literature suggests that when a risk is personified - is portrayed in human terms - it raises more concern than when it's abstract (climate change).

Could it be because the greater coverage has made us more constantly as well as intimately aware? The literature finds that the more readily we can bring a risk to mind, the more dramatically it troubles us.

Can it be that we're more aware of how impoverished Haiti is than poor parts of the world further away? Another finding of the risk perception research is that unfairness - bad things happening to people who can't protect themselves - makes risks seems worse.

The scale of this tragedy is impossible to imagine. But so was the earthquake disaster in Szechaun China that killed nearly 70,000. So was the 1991 typhoon that killed 125,000 people in Bangladesh and left millions homeless. Those tragedies, and others further away, evoked great concern, but nothing like we're seeing now.

It's not just about the numbers. Risk perception never is. Risk is a subjective thing, not quantitative. It's a matter of how things feel, and this terrible tragedy somehow feels especially awful.

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