what we learned through our experiments is that if you have the ability to help someone but your attention is drawn to others that unfortunately you cannot help you're less likely to help that person because it doesn't feel as good. Hello and welcome to the Decision Education podcast where I talk to experts and share tips on all things related to decision making. I'm your host, Dr Joe Sweeney. Broadcasting from the Alliance for Decision Education, the educational nonprofit committed to the belief that better decisions lead to better lives and a better society. Imagine what a difference it would make in your life and the lives of those you love if we were all even a little better at making decisions. This podcast is for you, the adults who are already out in the world making thousands of decisions every day and who want to get better at it. I hope you find it helpful. Mhm. Mhm. I'm excited to welcome our guests today. Dr Paul Slavic paul is professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. He is the co founder and current president of Decision Research, a trailblazing
research institute working at the cutting edge of the decision sciences, paul's research focuses on human judgment, decision making and risk analysis including work examining psychic numbing and the failure to respond to mass human tragedies.
In 2016 paul was elected to the National Academy
of Sciences. One of the highest honors the scientists can receive paul is also on the advisory council here at the Alliance for Decision Education. I met paul
while visiting the Decision Research institute as a guest of his colleague and leader in the field of decision education. Dr Robin Gregory. Welcome paul and thank you for talking with us today. Thank you, joe. Glad to be talking with you. I was wondering if you could just tell us in your own words a little about what you do and your path to getting here. Well what do I do? I shuffle a lot of paper, I know that I've been studying the psychology of risk and decision making since 1959 believe it or not. So that's more than 60 years. I was lured into it by a professor who I was given a job working for a client comes was his name and he was studying choices among gambles And I got hooked on that. I thought this was a fun thing for a psychologist to be studying and 60 years later I still study people's decisions about gambles. They're no longer simple to outcome abstract gambles in a laboratory but they're now the gambles that we take in every everyday life all around us, the things we're familiar with at great risk in our lives, health, safety, environment, government, all this decisions everywhere that involves risk.
So one of the treats that I get as the hosts to read ahead all the various things that our guests have written and yours was just a blast. I mean there's so much that you thought about and written about. I thought we could do is we talk about some of the research topics and then we could talk about some of the applications that you could point us at, as far as ways that we might utilize what you've discovered or have co discovered to improve our own decision making for ourselves and our organizations in our society. The first one that I wondered if you could talk about, I don't think most people will have heard of before is the arithmetic of compassion? What are you talking about there? What is that? Right. So I got interested in the problem of genocide In the world in the 1990s when I when I well I was interested of course I was a child During World War II and the Holocaust was taking place and we didn't know much about the Holocaust probably a decade or so after the decade after the war of the 1950s when the story started to come out and graphic ways and we were in the world was shocked and as a teenager then and made a big impression on me and then I didn't think about that for a long time.
And then I was introduced. Well, I worked with Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who among many other other important contributions, developed something called prospect theory and the centerpiece of prospect theory is something that they call the value function. How do we value things like amounts of money or numbers of lives at risk as those as those quantities increased. And what they showed was this function, it wasn't a straight line, it was kind of a curved thing that the most that we, the biggest effect on our evaluation is when we go from 0 to 1 from no lives at risk to one life one. Life at risk is very important to us. And people will risk their own lives to save a single person nearby who is in danger. So that life is very valuable. But then the if there are two lives at risk, the value function shows starts to it's not straight, it's not linear, it starts to curve over and you know, to isn't twice as big as one, you know, and it starts stuff as the numbers increase, it starts to get flatter and flatter.
And so, you know, you get and it wasn't until afterwards that I figured out well, why why is that? And the problem is with our feelings. So what Daniel Kahneman has brilliantly described in his book, thinking fast and slow is that most of the time we rely on our feelings what he calls system. One kind of intuitive feelings to think about the world as opposed to making scientific calculations which were capable of doing. But it is very difficult and it's hard work and we usually don't do that. We we take the easy way out and go with our feelings because it feels right to do that. It's easy, it's natural and it usually works for us until it doesn't. So one of the one of the problems with feelings is that our feelings can't count their enumerate and here's where we get back to the value function. So so what kind of and frisky showed a beautiful picture of this function which starts off very steep and then starts to flatten out and but they didn't really talk in detail about why that was.
So that's what I got interested in. And started to link that to the fact that this happens when we rely on our feelings. This curved function is the way our feelings change when we're thinking about greater and greater quantities of money or greater and greater numbers of lives. Let me I can illustrate that very very simply. So the difference between zero lives at risk and one is huge. As I mentioned earlier and to to people at risk don't doesn't feel twice as concerning as one. We already are pretty concerned with one and two. Maybe we're more concerned but not twice as many. And then that's supposing that I say Okay now there are 87 people at risk. And then I say wait a minute I made a mistake. There's 88 people. It's not 87, You won't feel any different thinking about 88 lives at risk than 87. Even though there's an additional valuable life there. It shows the inability of the feeling system to differentiate quantity as as the as the numbers increase the same thing with money difference between if you find $100 will make you happy if you see $100 on the street, If you find 200 you won't feel twice as happy, this sort of thing.
So I was just going to ask if it goes for the positive as well as the risk and it's same thing, positive and negative. And actually this this way of reacting. Yes. Is more general than just valuing things like money and lives. It's a it's also the way our sensory system responds to changes in like our visual system, response to changes in the brightness of the light or are auditory system responds to changes in the sound energy. The loudness of a sound. Well, you know, in a quiet room you can hear a whisper. So you go from, you know, no, no sound to a quiet sound. You can hear that whisper in a loud room. You're not going to hear that whisper. It takes a lot more change in the volume of the sound before you'll notice it in a loud room. It's called the just noticeable difference. Well, psychologists were studying this In Germany in the 1880s, it was called a field of psycho physics. And so the early studies of psycho physics had to do with sensory changes, But what kind of man frisky showed was that the psycho physics also works on things that are social values, not just sensory value things, but social values follow that same kind of function.
I remember reading Don Hoffman's book Visual Intelligence. I don't know if you compress it. Wonderful descriptions of our brain as a difference engine and how we find the edges of surfaces and shapes and you're what you're saying with regard to our perception system being tied to it. That makes so much sense to me now. I was wondering I was reading your work why why this would be happening? But you're grounding and in the very way that our brain responds to differences and whether we can notice them or not. Yes, it's absolutely kind of built into our brains. And it's interesting to think through evolution, why would we evolved to have this kind of response? Because when we become insensitive to the large, because that's not adaptive? Well, think about a system like the your the mechanisms in your ear that transmit sound. Well, if you want to design a system that is sensitive to very low quiet sounds that might you may need to hear in order to survive. You know, you have you have these these systems that are that are making that happen.
Well now, supposing that same system, you know, to make it equally sensitive to the large. You couldn't do it physically. I mean, it's just it would it melts the brain. You see that kind of electoral system, you know, the same thing with the visual system. So nature decided it's better to get us sensitive to the small than the large built mechanisms in our eyes and ears that enable us to react to the to the small things. And probably the same thing with regard to valuing lives. You know that when when all of this was evolving at first, you know, the world was smaller, our world was, you know, was right in front of us, protect yourself. Few people around you. You didn't have to think about protecting thousands or millions of people on the other side of the earth that just didn't exist. It's interesting that you're reminded me something Barbara Miller's was telling me about, look if she could say three things that we should know about decision making. One is that there are Better ways are good ways to make a decision to.
There are these predictable ways we go awry and three try to construct context for yourself where you're more likely to go in the first direction rather than the second. And I'm I'm listening what you're saying and thinking about that and just wondering about if our system, our biology is telling us that the 88th life Is worth more. But it's not, it's not equal to a whole another person. What is it that's driving you the other way. What did you learn about either ethics or about some other aspect of social science that makes you say, no no, no we got to slow down here and we do have to treat that 88 life as that when we do our our determination about what policies to pursue with regard to health care, anything. We've got to treat it as another unique life. We can't just let our our intuition our system, one thinking drive the decision here. What are you grounding it and if not our biology and our systems then I think it's because over a long period of time our our brain evolved And became capable of abstract and conceptual thinking, ethical thinking.
You know, we can we can appreciate the fact we learned how to how to count and we can subtract 87 from 88 and see there's one additional life and that there's no reason to devalue that life just because there's other people at risk questions. You know, if if a life is valuable, why should you why why does it become less valuable if there are other people who are also at risk and we can do that kind of thinking, you know, what's comin called slow thinking, you know, and that's linked to all kinds of ethics and morality. And this has become the basis of fields like risk assessment, risk analysis, technical fields that where people do this slow quantitative thinking, two assess values and to guide decisions so we can do that. The problem is we tend not to because we think we can do the job as well with our gut, you know and it's a lot easier and so we go with our gut and as I say most of the time that that may work for us and other times it really causes problems and that's what those of us who study this are trying to do, we're trying to figure out well when can we trust our gut feelings?
When do we need to slow down and do the do careful analysis or listen to others who are doing careful analysis. That's the that's the key factor. Now. I remember reading about this and listening people talk about it and intellectually agreeing with it or assenting to it and then being very disappointed in myself that it still doesn't feel like I need to uh huh. The feelings the feelings didn't update right away to the to the new understanding like okay I'm going to use calculations, I'm gonna gonna evaluate risk. I'm going to think about expected value and utility began learning about these things and found that I could do it and if I do what you suggest which is pause and deploy that system two thinking but it didn't immediately change how I felt and I don't know if you've talked with any decision makers over the years about that or through your research looked into that like does it eventually shift over does the feelings start to shift or is this just an ongoing self management problem? Well, I think some people are trained to think analytically.
You know, I'm an economists I think are more analytic than people in other other disciplines. This is the way they think or people in law lawyers, judges, you know, this is their world, is that of argument? Maybe not quantitative calculations, but they use they use logic, reason, argument and that's the way they think. So. I think we can train ourselves to be more careful and more analytic but it's it's as you say, it is difficult and in some cases we may not adequately achieve the right balance between analysis and feeling. And in that case then I think you have to say, well, ok if we're thinking in ways that we really don't find it would find hard to justify. Maybe we have to change this situation. Maybe we have to restructure the decision setting in ways that will will recognize that we need to be prodded or pushed or in today's world we use the word nudge to do the right thing.
And or maybe certain types of judgments and decisions need to be taken out of our direct control that as we need to do the calculations carefully and then and then build those calculations in into the system and take it away from our gut feelings because we can't trust those feelings or maybe we should turn them over to machines, people always say well the machines, you know, we know that machines get faster and stronger. They're faster than we are. They have better memories. They're stronger than humans but they can never replace the human sense of morality for example. And I said no wait a minute because what we what we find in this trusting of the feelings that our feelings are often not moral. You know? It's I think it's not moral to devalue life just because other people are at risk. I think that's a mistake and you can you know and if you have a you have a decision making system that's controlled by machines like you know like maybe some form of transportation, automated transportation systems and you want to put values.
You wouldn't put a value function into, you wouldn't build it into the machine in a way that devalues lives when there are more at risk. You would make it kind of linear. You or you have to make a decision. One decision might be well if you believe every human life is intrinsically of equal value then you want this machine to react more strongly proportionately more strongly as the number of lives increase. You want to build on what we call a straight line. It's just adding or multiplying and that's again this is a very long answer to your question about the arithmetic of compassion. It was and I wondered if we drifted over did we drift into psychic numbing which is a whole another area of yours. Or would you treat that distinctive? Oh no that said that. The arithmetic of compassion and nothing is part of it. The arithmetic of the compassion as a feeling. And as I said our feelings are enumerate. They do arithmetic but they do it wrong. One plus one is not equal to its something less than two. And in some cases it's less than one. So one thing that was not built into the value function that condom and first he put forth which gets it keeps increasing but gets flatter and flatter is what I would call the collapse of compassion.
That not only do we become insensitive. We don't see the difference between 88 lives and 87. We actually feel less concerned or we start to you know we have less feeling for the larger numbers than for the smaller numbers we and when the numbers get really big they're just numbers. You know we say that statistics are human beings with the tears dried off. There's no tears to them. These are these are emotionless numbers that don't register. We don't appreciate the reality that these numbers represent. Because a main element of meaning. For information is the feelings that that information creates in you. And these big numbers are creating no feelings. They're just numbers. And so we are lacking the understanding of what those numbers mean. You also talk about the false sense of powerlessness that we can get with very large numbers or statistics of one child starving. We feel like we can do something. I remember you talking about an experiment or an evaluation to there, can you say some more about that? There are three pillars to the arithmetic of compassion.
The first is psychic numbing. This insensitivity as the numbers increase. Which is again a peculiar kind of arithmetic. And we say that the more who die the less we care. I mean that's that's numbing. I think it's irrational. The second thing we learned in studies of when people help others when they don't is that we help others first because they need our help. And second we feel good about helping them. Economists call this the warm glow of satisfaction that we get when you do something good for other people. It's a motivator. And what we learned through our experiments is that if you have the ability to help someone but your attention is drawn to others that unfortunately you cannot help, you're less likely to help that person because it doesn't feel as good. In other words you can still you have the same ability to help them but it doesn't feel as good to help them because the bad feelings that you get when you think about those, you're not helping enter your brain and mingle with the good feeling that you have about helping and devalue it.
It's like the brain averages inappropriately averages in irrelevant information that is carrying counter feelings and so it doesn't feel it's good to help this person anymore and you're less likely to help them even though you still can. So again, this is again a form of arithmetic that is irrelevant numbers from outside come in and devalue the relevant the feelings for the relevant numbers. There is an arithmetic aspect of that. So that's well we keep that as part of the earth. The deadly arithmetic of compassion. So numbing and this false sense of efficacy which by the way we we we give it kind of a jargon, the name pseudo and efficacy, it's a false, it makes you feel and you know that you're not effective when you really are. So it's a weird word but anyway, so numbing and pseudo and efficacy. Our problems with our feelings. The third pillar of arithmetic of compassion is something we call the prominence effects which is which results from slow thinking.
You know, the the numbing and this and efficacy that happens when we think quickly with our feelings. Because you know if you're thinking slowly then you know you shouldn't not help this person just because you can't help others. You know slow thinking hopefully would would not succumb to that but fast thinking does. Now the third pillar which is the what we call the province effect is a slow thinking problem. The first study I call it the more important dimension effect. And then we change that to the prominence effect that some qualities of a decision are more prominent, which means it's hard to make tradeoffs. They dominate every trade off. And then a few years later when I started to think about genocide, I realized this. This was an explanation for why we turned a blind eye to genocide over and over and over again after the holocaust. You know, we swore this is so horrific that you heard the phrase never again, would we allow this to happen then if you look half century later you look you see that over and over again dozens of times, there were nothing like the holocaust.
It's a unique event. But there were genocides and other mass atrocities happen all the time. And as we speak, they're happening in multiple places around the world. And we decry these, we say this is horrible, this is wrong. We say that we value the lives that are being abused but we don't do anything. We don't act on our values. And the reason. Uh so I've been I've been arguing that one of the key reasons we don't act in a in a way that is consistent with our values for human life is because often typically action carries some costs threatens our, what I would say various costs to our own security. It is dangerous costly to go into a sovereign nation that's murdering it's citizens for political reasons. And when it comes down to finally making that choice, our own security is prominent over the lives of other people who were probably numb to it and we know that there's a lot of people being killed, but their statistics.
So again brings in the psychic numbing. But basically when we come have to choose, we go with our security and we failed to act. We turn a blind eye to it and protect ourselves. We don't want to risk our military, we don't want to spend a lot of money, We don't want to anger some allies that we're trying to work with politically who may support the regime that's killing its citizens. All of these things are costs, security related costs which are prominent and it does. And it's not that we're kind of averaging these things out on a balance scale. It's not a balance scale. It is an all or none. Almost an all or nothing kind of thing. That if we go for security, it doesn't matter how many how many lives are lost because of it, whether it's 1000 a million, 100 million, this sort of thing. And so, so that's the third pillar of the flawed arithmetic of compassion. The devalues lives in that when protecting those lives conflicts with our security. Okay, so I think I've got it now. So there's psychic numbing. There's the pseudo in efficacy and the prominence effect, right?
And is it a little too strong for me to say this. But what it sounds to me like I'm hearing is and you're saying that these things lead us astray to the point that they are, that they are making us pursue unethical policies or decisions that we actually we actually behave in a way that we know is unethical. Yes, but we probably don't feel that we are doing something unethical when we're doing it and that relates to another another concept. Let me just take another step further beyond genocide. A couple of years ago, I was asked to take a look at the nuclear weapons and I started to think about war and you know, go back and read up on the history Daniel Ellsberg, famous from the Pentagon papers. He was a young analyst in the 1960s. He was trained in decision making operations and research and decision making Harvard, he got a job with the Rand Corporation. He was privy to being sitting in the room when the people who are doing nuclear weapons strategies were planning what to do with the nuclear weapons after the end of World War Two.
And we were building up our weapons. And and he saw the plans now that the Germans and the japanese were no longer our enemies. But it was the soviet union was the evil empire and we were worried that they were they wanted to control control the world and we had nuclear weapons aimed at cities in the soviet union and china At 600 million people. And he saw the numbers, he saw that those in control of nuclear weapons had targeted hundreds of millions of people for death, you know? And again, I thought okay to protect our security again, this is security prominence is psychic numbering what is 600 million? And not only that it could be more than that because it didn't take into account nuclear winner or you know, the fact that it might end civilization to start a nuclear war. So all of this is an insensitivity to quantity to psychic numbing in the sake of security. You know, that is even more evident in warfare than it was in genocide and other humanitarian abuses.
So that's both both horrifying and just sort of stunning. And I appreciate the work you did there. I wonder if we could bring it forward a little bit more to the current situation with the pandemic. And ask does this framework have any lessons for us about what we should do to structure decision making for ourselves, for our organizations, schools, businesses or for our society with regard to covid and what we how we should think about it or how we should feel about it. And if those two things aren't the same. Absolutely. You see the same phenomena. The same cognitive limitations and flawed. Arithmetic of compassion at work with Covid as in these other contexts and a few other cognitive issues that hopefully could be addressed with education and awareness. So clearly as the numbers of lives, the numbers of cases, number of deaths increases again, we see that we have become numb to these statistics.
You know that when we accept when we hit a new a new level, like if we 200,000 there's some numbers that are special and we pay attention to those numbers. 100,000 Now it's 200,000 now it's 300,000 is closing in on 400,000. When it hits 400,000, there will be a little extra attention given to this. But we're not going to feel any different. We don't feel any different from 300,000. You know, it doesn't seem to make that much difference. So there's a form of numbing gut feeling based minds don't understand exponential growth. We vastly underestimate where it's leading and how fast it's going to be before we're overwhelmed by it. We need to do the math, the slow thinking. You know, we know how to do these projections mathematically and we need to, our experts can do that. We need to listen to our experts and not to our own gut feelings here. So that's a very important lesson. I think when we're facing cognitive biases of all kinds is that we need to pay attention to people who have thought this out slowly and carefully and listen to their advice.
I hadn't thought about that before, that it's that they're doing the slow thinking for us that they're the ones, it's like, it's like outsourcing our system to if we trust experts. Yes, yes. I have some questions that are a little more tied to the work that we're doing with the alliance. So for example, I'm wondering with the things that you know now about the arithmetic of compassion and decision making in general, what are some of the key decision skills that you'd like to see young people learning in school? I I think that at an early age we need to impress on youth the importance of trying to think, I think carefully about problems, not to just go with their first fast reaction to something, you know that I think carefully listen to others, respect others, respect other viewpoints. I think we should teach kids to kind of respect the importance of decision making as a thoughtful enterprise. It's amazing how even at the top level of government and the most important decisions that our government officials or military can make, like whether or not to use a nuclear weapon against the enemy and this decision is given to the President of the United States to have the who could act with sole authority on that.
We don't give the president any training and decision making about this is the most important decision of human being could ever could ever make. And we don't sit them down and try to help them understand how to think about this decision how to structure this decision, you know, how to make sure you've got, you know, the best set of alternatives to choose them on. That's the first thing I think about what are your objectives in this decision? What are your values that these objectives are supposed to be fulfilling and so forth? And then think about how do you put this together in a careful decision on which the fate of civilization could depend? We don't do that, there's no respect. It's like, okay, you're the new president, Okay, You've now got, here's here's how many nuclear weapons we have. You know, it's thousands, you're in charge. And, you know, we'll give you intelligence about what's going on the usual and and, you know, good luck. Yeah, I agree with you. I think it's it's very strange that we haven't we haven't thought about some of these very important decisions and how to prepare people to make them in specific ways.
I'm wondering, let's pretend it works. Let's let's put I I planned that it will. But assume I should say, not pretend assume that we've succeeded and decision. Education really is something that every young person is empowered with or has taught the skills and dispositions of. What do you think would look different in our society when we succeed in this mission. I think that we would have a society that is more harmonious, that is where there's more equality, because we would realize that to have a society where we have, where we have increasing levels of inequity is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it make lead to a lot of people who are very unsuccessful, unhappy, miserable, unhealthy, but it also will lead to conflict that will violent conflict. We would reduce that kind of inequality that leads to a divisiveness and violence. I think that people would be would be healthier. They would make better choices and decisions that would affect their health.
They would make better decisions about how to manage their finances, their money. I think that they would make better decisions about the relevant to their safety and they would also demand that authorities in charge of these various components of our life, health and environment and security. Make better decisions. So I think basically better governments which then would affect us in all kinds of better ways. I think this is how central decision making is to the to the well being of our society. So those are the easy questions. Now, I've got, I've got two last questions that are much more challenging. If you only got to pass down one tool or skill or lesson to the next generation of decision makers, what would it be? I would say it's it's critical thinking. Okay, my sense of definition is a tool that is what decision education is about to think critically.
Okay, appreciate that. That was. So that was the first hard won. The second one is this podcast is actually for adults who are interested in this whole area, who didn't get the benefit of this in school, what's a book that you would recommend for our listeners, who are keen to improve their own decision making again, this is a, this is a tough one, but I would say Daniel Kahneman is thinking fast and slow. The book is it's not an easy, but it is still 15-20 million copies, so people are buying it. And now, now economy has said, he thinks fewer than 20% have read more than a fraction of the book, you know, that people people, it's a book that you can skim, you can go back and forth, you know. But this has been bought and read and extolled as valuable by people in all walks of life, all the kinds of disciplines. It's been amazing how people have Pick this up and it was published in 2011, was now almost 10 years out.
And and and even today, you know, people, people are discovering it and raving about it. And so there must be something good good in that. And it's all about what we're talking about about the ways in which, you know, fast and slow thinking, either help us or harm us and so sure you can't understand maybe everything in it, but it was attempted to be written for the broader audience. It's still, it's not a simple read, but it's got a lot of valuable insights in it. So we have a little internal bet about whether any guest on the podcast when you asked that question is automatically going to go with that book or if or if the awful God I agree. It's a fantastic read. And it's one that you can take time to go back in and steep yourself in the ideas, they just keep on improving the way that you think and make decisions on my own book. The feeling I was going to go ahead with a feeling of risk is if you're interested in understanding how the mind works when we're facing a risk, which we often do it.
And then that book is a good introduction to the author. Nobody's talking about. It's just I'm a little biased. Alright, fair enough. Well the other thing that that it would be great. Maybe you have linked to it. I think we need to use the link to the arithmetic of compassion website. Yes, I was going to ask actually, we can sign off on this. But if listeners want to learn more about your work as opposed to decision making? Just in general, can they follow you on social media? Should they go to a particular website? Where would you like them to go first? I would go arithmetic of compassion or two to decision research dot org and to look me up there and I'll put in a little plug for audience. I got a chance to hear you talking particularly about nuclear decision making us fascinating. Well thank you so much for coming on our podcast. Really appreciate it and I feel like I learned a lot. I know it's an interesting topic that most of us never heard about in school and it clearly is important to how we make decisions as a society. So thank you very much.
Thank thank you, joe Thanks what you're doing with the Alliance for improving our decision making Very important. Well, thanks for helping at the Alliance for Decision Education. Our mission is to improve lives by empowering students with essential decision skills. We are building a national movement to ensure decision education is part of every student's learning experience through this podcast we are raising awareness about the movement but we need your help. Please share tweet and sign the petition on our website. Alliance for decision education dot org. If there is someone you think would be great for us to interview for a future episode or if you have a question about decision making that you'd like us to explore on the podcast, email us at connect at Alliance for decision education dot org. Also ratings on Apple podcasts are greatly appreciated and don't forget to subscribe to this podcast in your favorite app so that you don't miss an episode. Thank you and I hope you join us again soon. Mhm