Refugee Regret

Paul owns shares in company A.  During the past year he considered switching to stock in company B, but he decided against it.  He now learns that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had switched to the stock of company B.

George owned shares in company B.  During the past year he switched to stock in company A.  He now learns that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had kept his stock in company B.  

Who feels more regret?

The results are clear-cut: 8% of respondents say Paul, 92% say George.

This excerpt from the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is timely because I believe it plays a factor in how people are thinking about the Syrian refugee crisis.  

First of all, it's worth understanding why people view George's situation as more regretful than Paul's.  The answer is that when we make an active decision, such as transferring one stock to another, we feel more responsibility for the consequences of that decision.  The reason then that George feels more regret than Paul is not the outcome (they both lost $1,200) but that George actively did something (trade stock) and Paul did nothing.

Helping Syrian refugees is an active decision.  Being an active decision it opens leaders up to more regret if something bad were to happen as a result, such as accidentally letting a terrorist into the country and have people die because of it.  A passive decision, letting the situation continue to enfold without any interference, may also cause violence and death, but it is easier for leaders to distance themselves from being responsible for it.

Leaders are also aware of who they are responsible for.  A decision they make that shifts violence and death to people they are not responsible for, may be more enticing because by their inaction, of not accepting refugees, they can reason that they are making their population safer by removing the smallest chance that violence might occur, regardless of how it affects the overall world community.

Death by terrorism in the United States is statistically extremely low, but we are still talking about death, and so much like what motivates people playing the lottery, we overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events and overweigh them in our decision making process.  Someone has to win the lottery (1 in 175,223,510) just like an American has to be killed by terrorism (17 in 318,900,000 in 2011).  

The common reframe, "What if it was your son/daughter" is an example of this skewed outlook.  Everyone is expected to act as if they are the statistically unlucky person who loses a family member.  This is asking a group of 318,900,000 people to behave and make decisions as if the probability of an extremely rare event is equally likely for every one of them.  Needless to say, this makes for an irrational group of people.

The humane decision in this situation would be if we asked ourselves, "What can I do so the least amount of people suffer?"  Our political, as well as our biological system, is not so interested in this question.  We are biologically predisposed to care more about people that look like us, that share similar interests and that are closer in proximity.  Our political system is designed so that our leaders are prodded to care more about their respective populations than the overall outcome of human events.  How then can we overcome these obstacles to make the humane rational decision of easing the suffering of the greatest amount of people possible?  

There are no easy answers, but what I can offer is a way to reframe the issue.  Often it is assumed that putting highly emotional situations in numbers is dehumanizing, but I would say that in the refugee crisis, it could have the opposite effect.  Imagine these three scenarios:

  1. 4 million Syrian refugees flee their country.  Every country decides to put the safety of their respective populations over the lively hood of the refugees.  All 4 million people are turned back from every border.  Through the hardships of traveling as well as the costs of returning to a war zone 250,000 people die.
  2. 4 million Syrian refugees flee their country.  Some countries accept them, but only under strict screening.  This strict screening weeds out a few terrorists, but also denies refuge to 35,000 people that are not terrorists. The slowness of the process, as well as the rejection of 35,000 people, ends up causing 10,000 people to die.
  3. 4 million Syrian refugees flee their country.  Most countries accept them.  The screening process is thorough, but not so strict.  Most all of the 4 million people are let in, but unfortunately, a handful of them turn out to be terrorists and years later, through a coordinated attack, they end up killing 500 people.

If we care about the overall suffering of human beings, obviously the third choice is preferable, even if the number killed by terrorists is substantially higher.  The only way the second option makes sense is if you value American lives significantly more than Syrian lives.  Putting these situations in numbers makes people have to quantify exactly how many Syrians an American is worth.  If you are inclined to choose the second option, it is a question that should be uncomfortable to answer.