I thought The Martian was a pretty good movie. Well-made. Well-filmed. Well-acted. (I didn’t really like the Matt Damon character all that much, and found the voice-over narration via video diary a little formulaic and annoying, although I frankly can’t, off the top of my head, think of a better alternative.) But it was reasonably suspenseful and interesting. Thought-provoking. And/But there was one thought in particular that kept nagging at me. Which was:

These people are both individually and collectively willing to invest a lot of time and effort, and hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, not to mention risking the lives of others, to rescue this one person from Mars. But, presumably, wouldn’t lift a finger to walk down the street and help some homeless person who is going to die of starvation, an overdose, or either the heat or cold.

Perhaps “nagging” is not really the right word. I am not sure that it’s necessarily “wrong”. It kind of appeals to my Kantian inclinations, which seem to be wrapped up in an implicit military-type code that you just don’t leave someone behind. And there is certainly a collective sense of glory, and celebration, and pride, at the end, which could only be experienced in a public and identifiable accomplishment and gesture.

Maybe it’s just irony.

But I came across a passage in Thaler’s new book on the evolution of Behavioral Economics, Misbehaving, which describes an evolutionary function of human perception and decision-making that I was aware of from previous works, (e.g. Kahneman, Ariely), but which carried a particular resonance having just seen the movie:

…the story of the sick girl is a vivid way of capturing the major contribution of the article. The hospitals stand in for the concept Schelling calls a “statistical life,” as opposed to the girl, who represents an “identified life.” We occasionally run into examples of identified lives at risk in the real world, such as the thrilling rescue of trapped miners. As Schelling notes, we rarely allow any identified life to be extinguished solely for the lack of money. But of course thousands of “unidentified” people die every day for lack of simple things like mosquito nets, vaccines, or clean water.

Richard Thayler, Misbehaving (W.W. Norton & Co. 2015), p.13; citing “Let a six-year-old girl”: Schelling (1958).

See also, generally, e.g., “Legalnomics”: Lessons for the Trial Lawyer on Perception and Decision-Making from the Field of Behavioral Economics (Nov. 25, 2014)