The Prominence Effect
We often struggle to make decisions that involve important trade-offs. The prominence effect is a theory of choice that says people often default to choosing the option that is better in the most prominent or defensible attribute. For example, when buying a car, one may forgo analyzing the difficult tradeoffs and simply choose the car that is best in safety. Psychologists have observed the prominence effect in a variety of types of decisions.
At the level of government, we often see the prominence effect intrude on the decision of whether to intervene to stop or prevent a mass atrocity. In the United States, our leaders claim that preventing genocide is a core national interest, but as a result of the prominence effect, the U.S. has often defaulted to inaction whenever preventing genocide seems to conflict with economic or security interests. For example, 480,000 people have died in the ongoing genocide in Sudan, and more than 470,000 people have died in the ongoing conflict in Syria, yet aside from two one-off missile strikes in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on civilians, the U.S. has chosen not to exert military pressure on the Sudanese or Syrian governments. In both cases analysts have speculated that the U.S. allowed the atrocities to occur because intervening was seen to be somehow detrimental to national security. This explanation for inaction raises the question: what kind of security are we getting from our inaction that is worth half a million lives?
The flawed thinking inherent in the prominence effect is perhaps expressed in this quote from former president Barack Obama, explaining why the U.S. hasn’t intervened in Syria:
How often, and in what situations U.S. presidents default to this “bottom line” and fail to engage in difficult tradeoffs when considering humanitarian intervention is difficult to assess because national security deliberations are classified, but the repeated failures of the U.S. government to halt or prevent genocides suggests that the prominence effect is playing a role in our inaction.
The prominence effect also causes us to make decisions based on needs that seem more important in the moment rather than our intrinsic values. For example: someone who believes environmental protection is important and burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment may choose to fly cross country to attend a meeting in person rather than to attend virtually.
“When (In)Action Speaks Louder Than Words: Confronting the Collapse of Humanitarian Values in Foreign Policy Decisions” by Paul Slovic. University of Illinois Law Review, 2015.
“Countering the Prominence Effect: How U.S. National Security Lawyers Can Fulfill Non-Prominent Humanitarian Objectives” by David G. Delaney and Paul Slovic. Journal of National Security Law & Policy, 2019.