Of late my screen time has reduced considerably – not just laptop, but even mobile phone usage is much lower than what it used to be 3 months back. It’s not by coincidence; I’ve been actively working towards it. One one specific day in August 2021 my Screen Time as per iPhone statistics was 7 Hrs 32 Mins. That was just iPhone time, laptop not included. Out of 7 Hrs 32 Mins, 1 Hr was on Chess App and 2 Hrs 30 Mins were on Youtube. That’s when I decided to consciously bring it down. And I have been successful to some extent. I spend more time in Reading and other activities now.
I started reading some of the long pending books and have made good progress in clearing backlog of books. While at it, I came across an interesting example of a concept I had learned briefly during MBA. It’s referenced in Vivek Kaul’s book Bad Money. The concept is called the Identified Life.
Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling wrote about it in his book Choice and Consequences. He wrote: “Let a six-year-old-girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear or reach for their cheque books”.
Schelling quotes this example to distinguish between “a statistical life” and “an identified life”. The sick girl is an identified life, while the people dying in the hospital are statistical lives. We related with an identified life, sympathise/empathise more and tend to help or donate money. We do not relate much with a statistical life.
Another Nobel prize winning economist Richard Thaler makes similar point in his book “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics”: “We rarely allow an 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”.
Vivek Kaul used that concept to argue that there have been so many bank defaulters, but since they were not high profile, there was not so much of backlash against them. But with people like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi (who are “identified lives”) people felt strongly about them and the backlash in Social Media was too strong.
When I read this, the first thing that struck me was intrusive and annoying ads on Youtube I used to see quite often. Those ads would be about a child fighting with cancer or a malnourished child or an elderly person needing care and medical help etc. I used to just frown at those ads and would wait for them to get over or for Skip Ads to be enabled. But after reading about the concept of “identified life” I understood why those ads were appearing. Instead of an NGO or a Charitable Trust appealing to people for funds (using some statistical lives as a pitch) it was effective to show these “identified lives” and plead for help. Even during movie interval the ads we see about cancer caused by Tobacco, they show a specific person’s story to make it more emotional and appealing.
As the often misquoted quote goes: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic”. Joseph Stalin is supposed to have said this. But some argue that it’s wrongly attributed to him. Similarly, the trauma of identified life is a tragedy. Trauma of statistical life is not moving enough.
Anyways. So the next time I saw similar ad on Youtube, I clicked it to check who was behind it. As it turned out there is a platform or organisation called Ketto which posts all these ads in Youtube for raising funds. In fact you can see the whole repository (more than 500) of such ads on their Youtube channel here:
Vivek Kaul used the same idea of “identified life” again in his recent Mint column titled “The identified life of Aryan Khan and the public role it could play“.
Vivek argued that the ordeal of an individual we recognise can make a better argument for change than cold statistics. Just a few weeks or months before Aryan Khan saga, there was a huge consignment of drugs/narcotics which was caught at Adani Ports. It was mind boggling! The amount of drugs was in tonnes and was worth close to Rs 20,000 Crore (~ $3 Billion). There was hardly any ruckus in media or in public. One of the reasons could be that the owner of Adani Ports is second richest person in India and friend of Indian Prime Minister. But that aside, it was a classic case of “statistical lives”. Thousands of people consume drugs in India. Many get caught. Local variants of drugs are often openly sold and consumed in North India, even during Kumbh Mela. It’s an open secret. And yet it doesn’t create ripples.
But when Aryan Khan was allegedly caught on a cruise party where such drug was supposed to be sold/consumed, it made National News for several days and weeks. Aryan Khan is son of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. So he was not just an “identified life”, but a celebrity. The amount of drug found with some other person on the cruise was 10 milligrams. Yes, milligrams. Not tonnes, as was the case with Adani Port seizure. And yet it was enough to become national concern for next few weeks. That’s the impact an “identified life” can make in taking the story or message home.
It’s fascinating how these concepts are all around us and yet we tend to be oblivious to them. It’s exactly how marketeers and people who understand human behaviour manipulate us and make us do the things they want!