I observe this kind of thinking especially in politics, for instance when someone brings up that "It is fine to take a few dollars from a lot of people if it helps the country". I think the reason we see things like this is that we can better imagine the value of one thing with awesome qualities than million things of a small quality because we are more used to compare the quality, not the amount, in our daily lives. Is there a name for a similar cognitive bias/fallacy?

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    $\begingroup$ of course taking a million dollars from a million people is less dramatic than taking a million from one?! I can't imagine that being a fallacy. Of course, it's still a million bucks.... $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Aug 25, 2017 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD Can you advocate that with some rational arguments? Because otherwise...that's exactly what I'm talking about :) $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Aug 25, 2017 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ Consider that $1, for most people, is a very small fraction of their budget (and makes a very minor, almost un-noticeable impact, on each individual). Additionally, this amount is easily recovered. Conversely, a million dollars from a single individual may represent their life savings: the sum work of a life, and an amount that cannot be recovered. So you destroy one persons life, or you take an amount from many people that goes un-noticed. PS you have shown no evidence towards "fallacy": do you have arguments or citations to support your claims? $\endgroup$
    – mflo-ByeSE
    Sep 6, 2017 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ @mfloren That's not how economics work. There are no "recoverable" dollars. If you have a million on your bank account, every single one of those million dollars is equally important. Surely, it's much cheaper to establish a general tax if otherwise everyone had to send this one dollar himself. And of course, some people have bigger needs then others. But what if you from time to time one dollar from a million of people and gave a million to someone random who isn't in need? Would you consider that a good policy? $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Sep 8, 2017 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD Thank you so much for the edit, it's much clearer now. $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Sep 8, 2017 at 14:04

3 Answers 3


Yes. This is a special case of the identifiable victim effect: the cognitive bias implicated in the quote, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."

The identifiable victim effect might be paraphrased as the tendency to view harm of many as unimportant. A direct corollary is the tendency to view small harm of many as unimportant. Going off AliceD's example, we might expect taking \$1 from a million to sound preferable even to taking just \$100k from 1 person.

A potential objection might be, "sure, but in this case, 'one person' isn't really an identifiable victim. It's really about the small amount of harm since both victims are just 'statistics'." Fair point, but even if you wanted to classify this as a bias distinct from the identifiable victim effect, they both result from the same cognitive heuristic: experiential thinking.

Experiential thinking, in this context, is evaluating a scenario by imagining yourself in it and judging what that experience would be like. For example, when I imagine losing \$10, it is far preferable to losing \$100k, but the fact that it is taken from a million people has little emotional relevance. You can't imagine experiencing the loss of $10 as more than one person at a time. Similarly, an identifiable victim makes my experiential thinking more vivid because I have a concrete situation in which to imagine myself. I can imagine what it's like being mugged at 11pm in an alley near 130th Street, but "1,000 muggings in the past month" is not something I can relate to experientially.


This comes under the heading of the theory of organized interests.The idea is that there are a few parties that stand to make large gains from a situation, and therefore have an incentive to organize and capture these gains. Meanwhile, there is a large number of people that stand to receive small losses. Because these losses are individually "small," the latter group of people do not have an incentive to organize to defend their interests against the first group.

The doctrine of Pareto efficiency suggests that the action should be undertaken if the aggregate gains outweigh the aggregate losses (because the winners can compensate the losers and still come out ahead; otherwise not.


I don't know if a "cognitive bias/fallacy exist", however you could find some answers to your question looking at the defense mechanisms that each one of us use.

Defense mechanisms were first described in 1874 by Sigmund Freud as strategies developed by the ego when under pressure by superego, unconscious and external reality.

First of all, they rise from conflicts and their nature depends on the quality of conflicts (Anna Freud, 1936). In this case we would talk about:

Denial: A primitive defense mechanism which triggers an exclusion of an unpleasant and unbearable part of the reality from the conscious field. This exclusion occur by fantasy and by behaviour.

An aspect of reality has been refused and unknown, splitting from the coscience (White and Gilliland, 1975).

To sum up, denial allows these individuals to hide from a reality that is too hard to cope with.

I wish to have been helpful.


  1. Anna Freud (1936) "The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence"
  2. White and Gilliland (1975) "Elements of Psychopathology: Mechanisms of Defense"
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    $\begingroup$ Being careful here as I am outside of my comfort zone, but I get the impression that Freud isn't taken too seriously here at CogSci.SE $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Sep 6, 2017 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ @AliceD Really? That's a pity. Actually "science" recognizes the existence of unknown parts of our psyche. Why wouldn't CogSci.SE do it? $\endgroup$
    – Fil
    Sep 6, 2017 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ Fil: it seems like you misunderstood AliceD's point, which doesn't mention anything about omniscience of the psyche. For further discussion on Freud's place in CogSci, see this post. $\endgroup$
    – mflo-ByeSE
    Sep 6, 2017 at 19:07

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