Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

The power of visual imagery is well known, enshrined in such familiar sayings as "seeing is believing" and "a picture is worth a thousand words." Iconic photos stir our emotions and transform our perspectives about life and the world in which we live. On September 2, 2015, photographs of a young Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, lying face-down on a Turkish beach, filled the front pages of newspapers worldwide. These images brought much-needed attention to the Syrian war that had resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and created millions of refugees. Here we present behavioral data demonstrating that, in this case, an iconic photo of a single child had more impact than statistical reports of hundreds of thousands of deaths. People who had been unmoved by the relentlessly rising death toll in Syria suddenly appeared to care much more after having seen Aylan's photograph; however, this newly created empathy waned rather quickly. We briefly examine the psychological processes underlying these findings, discuss some of their policy implications, and reflect on the lessons they provide about the challenges to effective intervention in the face of mass threats to human well-being.

Details

Authors
  • Paul Slovic
  • Daniel Västfjäll
  • Arvid Erlandsson
  • Robin Gregory
Organisations
External organisations
  • University of Oregon
  • Linköping University
  • Decision Research
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Psychology

Keywords

  • Empathy, Humanitarian disasters, Iconic photographs, Psychic numbing, Syrian refugees
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)640-644
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume114
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Jan 24
Publication categoryResearch
Peer-reviewedYes