The Scope Insensitivity Bias: The Effects of Debiasing Interventions and a Range of Factors on How Insensitive We Are to the Size of Problems

Alexandra Bos

Alexandra’s degree was in Liberal Arts & Sciences/’Global Challenges’ with a major in Governance, Economics and Development at Leiden University (the Netherlands). Her future career plans are to have the largest positive impact she can through entrepreneurship and/or politics.

Author’s Note

What was your thesis topic?

I wrote my thesis about how we could reduce the strength of the scope insensitivity bias (also known as ‘scope neglect’ or ‘compassion fade’). This bias causes people to not feel much more concerned about a problem when the scale of a problem (for example the number of lives at stake) increases. For instance, we tend to react less than twice as intensely if we find out that twice as many people, animals or square meters of forest were harmed due to an incident. This cognitive bias can lead to suboptimal decision-making in places where the goal is to improve well-being (of e.g. people, animals, or nature) as much as possible.  

Prior research on the scope insensitivity bias has found several factors and de-biasing interventions which make people more/less insensitive to scope, but more replication studies are needed to confirm those findings and to test for additional de-biasing interventions and variables. My thesis tested 1) whether providing people with information on the scope insensitivity bias makes them less biased, 2) how that de-biasing intervention compares to a de-biasing intervention tested in prior research, and 3) how 12 different factors such as sleep, stress, and perceived impact of the donation affect how biased people are. 

In what ways do you think your topic improves the world?

I believe that it is incredibly important that we learn more about what causes and worsens the scope insensitivity bias, and which methods effectively reduce the bias. After all, the effects of the scope insensitivity bias reach far and wide: an inability to notice and appreciate the differences in the sizes of problems may for example be a driving factor in people donating to ineffective charities, choosing to work on relatively small problems and small-scale solutions, or making policy choices which benefit 100 instead of 10.000 people. 

Not only do I hope this research direction has the potential to significantly improve the world because it focuses on an important topic with large-scale implications, but also because the topic is very neglected. The scope insensitivity bias is not studied a lot in general, but one area which is especially neglected is studying the effectiveness of (potential) de-biasing methods. Whilst scoping the literature, I was able to find only a few papers which did this, and they exclusively focused on one single debiasing method (‘unit asking’). However, getting a better grasp on how to reduce scope insensitivity could help many people to become more effective in their altruism and choices.

What do you think the stronger and weaker parts of your research are?

Strengths: 

• The solution-oriented approach of the research which makes its findings applicable in the real world.

• The contribution of the thesis topic to existing research: there seems to be a true lack of empirical research into how to de-bias people, and in particular into how to reduce the strength of the scope insensitivity bias (see section 1.2 & 1.3 pg. 1-4). 

• The identification of fundamental flaws in the (more widely used and published) research method of this thesis and suggestions for how to alter these methods in future research (see ‘Conclusion & Further research’ pg. 15-16). 

Weaknesses: 

• The method my thesis uses to measure how scope insensitive participants were. There is a large risk of the measurements getting affected by other factors (such as a person’s charitability) instead of a person’s actual scope insensitivity levels.

• Using data from another paper which asked the same survey questions and comparing ‘their’ de-biasing intervention with the one I tested. Although everything within my control was the same, some of the circumstances (such as the moment in which the research was conducted) were different, which makes for a less rigorous comparison than if all the data had been collected at once and by the same researchers.

• My sample consisted of only Americans. It would be better to have a sample of people of many nationalities if you are trying to generalize research to all people.

What recommendations would you make to others interested in taking a similar direction with their research?

I would recommend thinking carefully and critically about how to best measure scope insensitivity, and reading pg. 15 & 16 of my thesis for some proposed changes in how to go about this. Furthermore, to make a large contribution with your research, I would recommend testing 4 to 10 de-biasing methods at once in your research. This could allow you to identify a range of impactful de-biasing methods and would make it easier to compare how strong they are relative to one-another.

Published 21/10/22

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