Nautilus

The Death of Hundreds Is Just a Statistic—But It Doesn’t Have to Be

Imagine that tomorrow I were to show you a newspaper article describing a deadly wildfire. Do you think you’d be more upset upon reading that 10,000 people died than if you read that five people died?

This scenario makes people engage in affective forecasting—predicting their future emotional states. We expect that hearing about 10,000 deaths would make us sadder than hearing about five deaths.

But that’s not what happens.

Social psychologists Elizabeth W. Dunn and Claire Ashton-James ran a study in which half of the participants received short briefs about longer newspaper articles. Some got briefs saying that five people

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