Ventilator allocations: The effect of mere identifiability

Ilana Ritov*, Stephen M. Garcia

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The COVID-19 crisis has raised a dire dilemma among medical professionals. Faced with a shortage of critical equipment and supplies, how do hospital administrators and physicians determine whether to divert resources from one patient to another? Most decision-makers will prioritize saving younger patients over older ones, because older patients generally have a much shorter life expectancy. But emotions, such as those elicited when a patient’s name is known and the patient is thereby humanized, can interfere with rational decision-making. At the height of the pandemic, we conducted three studies in which participants were asked to imagine being hospital officials tasked with allocating ventilators under two conditions: when the affected patients were and were not identified by name. Participants were less likely to reassign a ventilator from an older patient to a younger one when the patients had been named than when they had not. These results suggest that decision-makers are more likely to make the efficient choice—the one that should save more years of life—when the individuals affected by the choice remain anonymous. When patients are humanized by being named, less rational and more emotional considerations appear to govern how people choose to distribute lifesaving equipment. Our findings imply that keeping patients anonymous may help facilitate the efficient allocation of scarce medical resources.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)35-44
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioral Science and Policy
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

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© 2022, Brookings Institution Press. All rights reserved.


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