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Why stories need single protagonists

"The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of a million people is a statistic." So said Stalin, and he hit on a counter-intuitive truth. We should be much more upset about a million people dying but the fact is that we're not. We're more upset at the death of a single victim than the disaster for a crowd.

The phenomenon has implications for storytelling. Every storyteller knows instinctively that the more concrete you can make the story, the easier it is to get listeners interested. In particular, it's easier to tell a story with a single protagonist than a story with multiple protagonists.

Now we have a study confirming and measuring this phenomenon, and showing that the psychic numbing that occurs with multiple victims occurs with as few as two people. The study by Västfjäll, Peters, and Slovic gave a group of Swedish students the opportunity to contribute their earnings from another experiment to Save the Children to aid poor African child called Rokia. A second group was offered the opportunity to contribute their earnings to Save the Children to aid Moussa, a desperately poor seven-year-old boy from Mali A third group was shown the vignettes and photos of both Rokia and Moussa and was told that any donation would go to both of them, Rokia and Moussa. The donations were real and were sent to Save the Children. Both Rokia and Moussa received significantly more donations and sympathy, when their case was presented alone than when they were presented as a group of two. A stunning result.

Read the full study at here.


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