Valuing Lives You Can Save: Understanding and Combatting Value Collapse as Numbers Increase

Paul Slovic, Robin Gregory, & Daniel Västfjäll

National Science Foundation

September 1, 2012 – August 31, 2017


In a rational world, as threats to life increase in scale, potential efforts to protect those lives should increase proportionally. Unfortunately, in many circumstances, the opposite occurs. Compassion and societal concerns decrease rather than increase in the face of larger threats. The studies proposed here aim to examine the psychological underpinnings of this perverse phenomenon and examine its importance for theoretical models of valuation and, more broadly, for the welfare of society. The research uses a web panel to conduct eight studies that, with component substudies, total around sixteen experiments.

Prospect theory is arguably the most important descriptive theoretical framework in the field of decision making. According to this theory, valuation of human life follows an ever-increasing function that places greater overall importance on the threat as the number of lives at risk increases. Researchers have found empirical support for this function, but some believe that valuation of lives takes other forms besides that depicted in prospect theory. This research tests the hypothesis that, in some instances, “the more who die, the less we care,” a form of valuation that is inconsistent with prospect theory. In some contexts, valuation may follow an inverse-U trajectory, rising with increasing numbers of lives at stake up to a threshold, but then collapsing as the number continues to increase.

In addition to this theoretical extension of prospect theory, the research has important practical implications. Devaluation of life in the face of large-scale crises may help us understand failures to respond aggressively to mass threats posed by poverty, disease, famine, natural disasters, violence, and species extinction. We hope, as well, that this understanding will point the way toward better decisions through improved processes of analysis and deliberation and the creation of laws and institutions designed to overcome value collapse.