A group construal account of drop-in-the-bucket thinking in policy preference and moral judgment

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    Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2011) 5057

    Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

    Journal of Experiment

    .etwo pedestrians annually (Jenni & Loewenstein, 1997). For one group ofparticipants, the pedestrianswere described as 2 of 4 peoplewhodie at anintersection annually. For a second group, they were described as 2 of1700 people who die in auto-related accidents in Pennsylvania annually.The rst group evaluated the program more favorably. The program'sconsequences are identical in both cases, but relative considerations theproportion of the reference group saved make therst descriptionmorecompelling. Other experiments employing similar between-participantsdesigns have revealed similar effects (Baron, 1997; Fetherstonhaugh,Slovic, Johnson, & Friedrich, 1997; Friedrich et al., 1999).

    of each. In this task, participants did not respond that saving a greaterabsolute number was maximally important. In other words, even upondeliberation, participants did not respond as if a strict focus on absolutenumbers was the correct approach to every problem.

    Previous research on proportion dominance has investigated policypreference,making little connection to research onmoral reasoning andjudgment. This could seem like an oversight, considering that theresources under consideration (e.g., human life, natural resources) aretypically drawn from domains that are ascribed moral relevance bymany people. As Baron (1997) rst observed, proportion dominance, asMore surprisingly, relative considerationseven in cases where absolute and relative cagainst each other and where a strict focus onappropriate, or even morally obligatory (Kogu

    Corresponding author.E-mail address: dmb2199@columbia.edu (D.M. Bart

    0022-1031/$ see front matter 2010 Elsevier Inc. Aldoi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.003ften depend on whetherterms. In one study, fort would save the lives of

    Finucane, Peters, &MacGregor, 2002). In a subsequent task, participantswere shown the conict between saving agreater proportion and savinga greater absolute number, and they were asked to rate the importanceoutcomes are framed in absolute or relativeexample, participants evaluated a program thaIdentiable victim effect

    Choices can be described in both rexample, a deal on a stereo can be preseoff. A government's budget cut cansounds large, or as a4% reduction,whicha famine-struck country might be seen aor asmaking but a tiny dent in the problthe world.

    Furthermore, our evaluative judgmand absolute terms. Fora $50 discount or as 10%as $100 million, which

    t.Adecision to sendaid tog the lives of 1000 peopleunger andmalnutrition in

    McDaniels, 1988). For example, participants in one study read thatanthrax had beenweaponized and released into the air above two cities(Bartels, 2006). They then chose between saving 225 of 300 peopleexpected to die in one city versus saving 230 of 920 expected to die inanother city. Nearly half of participants preferred the rst option saving a greater proportion, even though this meant saving fewer lives.This phenomenon has been termed proportion dominance (Slovic,often inuence decisionsonsiderations are pittedabsolute numbers seemst & Beyth-Marom, 2008;

    studied in the copattern in moraltheory proposedthat people tendthey are construtendency he callsbucket thinking.drown in a nearels).

    l rights reserved. 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.Moral judgment of proportions on decisions and moral judgments.IndividuationMoral reasoning

    thehypothesis that (a) decisiat risk are construed as groupA group construal account of drop-in-theand moral judgment

    Daniel M. Bartels a,, Russell C. Burnett b

    a Columbia University, 502 Uris Hall, 3022 Broadway, New York, NY 10027, USAb U.S. Government Accountability Ofce, USA

    a b s t r a c ta r t i c l e i n f o

    Article history:Received 12 December 2009Revised 8 August 2010Available online 14 August 2010

    Keywords:Decision makingProportion dominanceEntitativity

    Decisions, bothmoral andmunumbers saved and lost, butthat saves 60 of 240 lives at rthe second, proportion savedepends on how items at risinuence on people's decisiodistinct individuals. Construaeither independently (prom

    j ourna l homepage: wwwucket thinking in policy preference

    ane, about saving individuals or resources at risk are often inuencednot only byby proportions of groups saved and lost. Consider choosing between a programnd one that saves 50 of 100. The rst optionmaximizes absolute number saved;n two studies, we show that the inuence of proportions on such decisionsre mentally represented. In particular, we show that proportions have greatero the extent that the items at risk are construed as forming groups, as opposed toasmanipulated bymeans of animated displays inwhich resources at riskmovedg individual construal) or jointly (promoting group construal). Results supportakers formmental representationswhich vary in the degree towhich resources

    al Social Psychology

    l sev ie r.com/ locate / jespntext of judgment and decision making, is similar to areasoning discussed in a prominent utilitarian ethicalby the philosopher Peter Unger (1996). Unger notesto regard saving lives as less morally obligatory whened as a few among overwhelmingly many at risk, afutility thinking and that we will call drop-in-the-

    For example, most people judge that letting a childby pond is less permissible than letting a child die of

  • 51D.M. Bartels, R.C. Burnett / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2011) 5057malnutrition in a famine-struck country (Singer, 1972). Although therearemany differences between the scenarios, Unger argues compellinglythat one of the important differences is that in the latter case only a tinyproportion of those at risk can be saved,whereas in the former case all ofthose at risk (one person) can be saved.

    In sum, we have multiple phenomena that involve an inuence ofrelative considerations where a strict focus on absolute considerationsmight seemmore correct. In this paper, we propose a single cognitiveaccount of these phenomena.

    Ours is not the rst attempt to explain the inuence of proportionson decisions about resources at risk, but we believe it is the mostcomprehensive. Baron (1997) attributed proportion dominance to ageneral error inmathematical reasoning: a tendency to confuse relativeand absolute quantities. Alternatively, Fetherstonhaugh et al. (1997)likened the diminished appreciation of loss of life whenmany are at risktoWeber's lawofperception,whichsays that just-noticeable differencesin stimulus intensity are greater at greater absolute intensities. Theyproposed that these phenomena in fact share a common underlyingmechanism, a form of psychophysical numbing that is ingrained inthe workings of our cognitive and perceptual systems (Fetherston-haugh et al., 1997, p. 298; see also Slovic, 2007). Although the confusionand psychophysical numbing accounts explain some instances ofproportion dominance, other instances are problematic for theseaccounts. The confusion account, for example, does not explain whyproportion dominance remains when relative and absolute considera-tions are pitted against each other (making the conict betweenabsolute and relative transparent), nor why participants, when asked toreect on the problem, don't consistently endorse a strict focus onabsolute quantities.

    Our account is explicitly cognitive; its explanatory constructs aremental representations. We posit that choices are based on mentalrepresentations of resources (lives, dollars, etc.) and that mentalrepresentations vary in the degree to which they emphasize resourcesas distinct individuals versus monolithic groups. In other words,representations of resources fall somewhere on a continuumwhose endpoints are individuals and group. Fifty sea otters canbe construed as 50 individuals; as a single, deindividuated group;or anywhere in between. To the degree that they are construed asindividuals, greater weight will be given to absolute considerations,and decisions will maximize the number of individuals saved. To thedegree that resources are construed as a group (e.g., that 50 ottersform a single raft), more weight will be given to relative considera-tions; decisions will tend toward maximizing the proportion of thisgroup that is saved, as saving a large proportion of a whole unit ismore satisfactory than saving a small proportion (cf. Geier, Rozin, &Doros, 2006). The greater the groupness of the representation, thegreater the inuence of relative considerations.

    Our argument that individual versus group representation caninuence thinking is well-founded theoretically. Groupness in mentalrepresentations has already met with success as an explanatory toolin social cognition, where entitativity the degree to which a socialgroup constitutes a single entity (Campbell, 1958) inuences howpeople explain traits (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000), behaviors, andintentions (Brewer, Ying-Li, & Qiong, 2004), among other things.

    The studies in this paper accomplish two goals: (1) We manipulatethe representation of resources as individuals versus groups and showthat this difference accounts for the inuence of absolute versus rela-tive considerations on judgment. For experimental control, wemanipulate construal in away that is somewhat articial. In the GeneralDiscussion, we consider factors that inuence individual versusgroup construal in more natural settings. Study 1 nds that groupconstrual promotes proportion dominance, and Study 2 nds thatit promotes drop-in-the-bucket thinking. (2) In accounting for bothproportion dominance and drop-in-the-bucket thinking, we bringtogether disparate literatures which, we believe, describe a single phe-

    nomenon from different perspectives.Study 1

    To manipulate construal, we adopted methods from studies thatinvestigated conditions under which adults and children treat groupsas single units. In a study by Bloom and Kelemen (1995), participantswere shown a static display of 15 unfamiliar-looking objects arrangedin three groups of ve and were told, for example, these are fendles.The question was what participants would take fendle to mean, andto answer this question, the researchers asked participants howmanyfendles there were. Participants in this condition interpreted thename as referring to the objects when asked, they reported thatthere were 15 fendles. In another condition, the three groups movedas units, with each group following a distinct path across the display.In this condition, participants interpreted the novel name as referringto the groups, reporting that there were three fendles. In anotherstudy, participants saw groups of objects moving along distinct pathsand interacting with one another. When asked to describe theseanimations, participants described the groups, not the objects, asagents with intentions to move in certain ways (Bloom & Veres,1999). Joint motion, then, is a cue to groupness.

    We adapted this method to manipulate people's construal ofresources at risk. In Study 1, participants saw resources (people, otters,etc.) depicted as arrays of objects. These objects appeared via computer-presented animations. In the individuals condition, objects emergedfrom different, randomly chosen off-screen locations and followedindependent paths to their nal locations in the array. In the groupscondition, objects moved in concert. These animations were accompa-nied by verbal descriptions of the scenarios, in which absolute andrelative considerations were pitted against each other, and participantsrated their preference for one alternative or theother.Wepredicted thatparticipants in the groups condition would show greater preference formaximizing proportion saved (at the expense of absolute numbersaved) than participants in the individuals condition.


    ParticipantsThirty undergraduates participated for course credit.

    Materials and ProcedureThe experiment was administered by computer. After some initial

    instructions, participants advanced to a screen where they read ascenario posing a tradeoff between relative and absolute savings. Thescenario involved some resources at risk, and two alternatives weredescribed: one saving a larger number of individuals and anothersaving a larger proportion of an at-risk group. Revisiting our earlierexample, participants were asked to decide whether to save 225 of300 people expected to die of anthrax inhalation in one city versussaving 230 of 920 expected to die in another city. Participants thenadvanced to a screen where the manipulation took place. Elementsappeared on this screen in the following sequence.

    (1) On the left side of the screen, a frame labeled Program Aappeared.Grayobjects representing ProgramA's reference groupappeared. For example, if Program Awould save 14 of 17 people,then 17 stickgures appeared. In the individuals condition, these17 gures followed distinct paths from locations around theedges of the frame (see IndividualsA in Fig. 1) andassembled intoa rows-and-columns array. In the groups condition, the indivi-duals moved together into the frame, like an army marching information (see Groups A). The nal rows-and-columns arrange-ment was the same in both conditions.

    (2) A description appeared (e.g., Program A saves 14 of 17),followed by the text To see this depicted, click on the gure

    above.Participants had to click for the task toproceed, andwhen

  • they did so, the resources lost (e.g., 3 gures) remained gray,while the resources saved (e.g., 14 gures) came into color.

    (3) A frame labeled Program B appeared on the right side of thescreen. Step 1 was then repeated for Program B. For example, if

    Program B saved 15 of 175 refugees, 175 gures appeared, byeither independent or joint motion depending on condition(see Individuals B and Groups B).

    (4) Step 2 was repeated for Program B.


    Individuals B

    Groups A Groups B

    Screen C

    Individuals A

    52 D.M. Bartels, R.C. Burnett / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2011) 5057Fig. 1. Displays presented to participants in the two conditions.

  • tradeoffs between competingmoral demands (Bartels, 2008; Iliev et al.,2009). And, of course, for participants who see little or no moralrelevance in a given scenario,wemight expectmoral judgments to havelittle or nomeaning, and this too will be important to take into account.

    Table 1Effects of group vs. individual construal on proportion dominance in policy preferencein Study 1.

    Proportion dominance

    Group Individual t(28) p2

    Anthrax 0.61 0.35 2.29 .16Otter 0.47 0.35 b1Paper 0.61 0.36 2.23 .15Tuna 0.51 0.26 2.08 .13Zaire 0.59 0.39 1.64 .09Ps' Avg's 0.56 0.34 2.42 .17

    1 Following others' denitions (Goodin, 1993, p. 242; Kagan, 1994, p. 52),utilitarianism requires summing welfare over individuals, counting each equally,and requires treating individual lives as fungible for each other...


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