In the wake of the mass killing that took place in Orlando, Florida, last week, questions regarding gun laws in America, LGTB rights, and other related questions have been brought to the forefront of the discussion. What remains remarkable, however—if not outright frightening—is an obscure piece of social science research that underscores a specific psychological problem with mass violence and punishment of the guilty.
As it turns out, the bigger the crime, the more people harmed, the less punishment the guilty will receive.
This is called the scope-severity paradox.
The notorious Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, put it this way: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Similarly, Loran Nordgren and Mary-Hunter McDonnell, two social psychologists, in an article about the scope-severity paradox, write: “. . . increasing the number of people victimized by a crime actually decreases the perceived severity of that crime and leads people to recommend less punishment for the crimes that victimize more people.”
At first, this seems appalling—especially, as pointed out by Nordgren and McDonnell—because the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment recommends that “the punishment should match the crime.” But a number of social science research have confirmed the scope-severity paradox’s emergence. A “soft” example of the scope-severity paradox in action may be when a smoker is presented with a tide wave of the clinical, medical, and epidemiological evidence of the strong link between smoking and lung cancer. The smoker, however, may not be deterred, and may only quit when he or she witnesses, up close, the death one particular person from smoking that he or she may admire dearly.
“[P]eople have stronger emotional reactions to specific, identified victims than to abstract victims who have not been personally identified,” writes Nordgren and McDonnell. The researchers also cite a previous study, published in 2005, in which “identifiable victims evoked greater sympathy and thus received more donations than statistical victims.”
Mass crimes and violence, whether the recent shooting in Orlando, Florida, or genocide in, say, Rwanda in the early 1990s, tend to not merit greater punishment for the perpetrator or perpetrators than, say, the killing of one innocent person—despite the attention given to the guilty by the mainstream media and social media.
Many explanations for the scope-severity paradox have been given, and it remains the opinion of the author that this phenomenon may exist because humans have a tendency to become less emotional about abstractions than they do actual persons. In other words, it’s easy to ignore numbers and data, but it remains more difficult to ignore the name or face of a victim of crime. In the Orlando shootings, the gunman not only unleashed mass murder, but he also killed himself, so there is no way for him to receive proper punishment through the criminal justice system. Yet when these tragedies occur, perhaps we would do well to pay closer attention to the numbers . . . because these are not pieces of data on a spreadsheet, as the scope-severity paradox tends to have us interpret them.
They are real people, with names, faces, families, and friends—and our thoughts and prayers remain with them.
Nordgen, L. F., McDonell, Mary-Hunter Morris (2010). The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why Doing More Harm is Judged to Be Less Harmful.” Social Psychology and Personality Science, 1 – 6.