Journal of Risk and Uncertainty

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 283–300

Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing


DOI: 10.1023/A:1007744326393

Cite this article as:
FETHERSTONHAUGH, D., SLOVIC, P., JOHNSON, S. et al. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty (1997) 14: 283. doi:10.1023/A:1007744326393


A fundamental principle of psychophysics is that people's ability to discriminate change in a physical stimulus diminishes as the magnitude of the stimulus increases. We find that people also exhibit diminished sensitivity in valuing lifesaving interventions against a background of increasing numbers of lives at risk. We call this psychophysical numbing. Studies 1 and 2 found that an intervention saving a fixed number of lives was judged significantly more beneficial when fewer lives were at risk overall. Study 3 found that respondents wanted the minimum number of lives a medical treatment would have to save to merit a fixed amount of funding to be much greater for a disease with a larger number of potential victims than for a disease with a smaller number. The need to better understand the dynamics of psychophysical numbing and to determine its effects on decision making is discussed.

decision makinglife savingvalue of liferisk-benefit analysispsychophysical numbing

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1997

Authors and Affiliations

    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyStanford UniversityStanford
  2. 2.University of Oregon and Decision ResearchEugene
  3. 3.Decision ResearchUSA
  4. 4.Willamette UniversityUSA