The Ebb and Flow of Empathic Response to Iconic Photographs

A recent article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Paul Slovic, Daniel Västfjäll, Arvid Erlandsson, and Robin Gregory explores the Arithmetic of Compassion in the context of the publicity surrounding the iconic photograph of the Syrian refugee child, Aylan Kurdi.

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.

Citation: Slovic, P., Västfjäll, D., Erlandsson, A., & Gregory, R. (2017). Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters. PNAS. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1613977114

We also encourage you to read this excellent essay that discusses many of the themes in the PNAS article: "Numbing Down America" by Dr. Melissa Hughes.