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how the most commonly used images make viewers dehumanise them

Creator : Manos Tsakiris, Professor of Psychology, Director of the Centre for the Politics of Emotions, Royal Holloway College of London

When the Syrian refugee disaster started in 2011, the journeys of 1000’s of individuals fleeing their residence nation to cross the Mediterranean had been extensively documented within the media. However the public response was tepid till 2015, when {a photograph} of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi on a Turkish seaside was printed in media world wide. The picture prompted worldwide responses, a change of EU coverage on refugees, and a surge in donations to charities working with refugees.

Photographs form our perceptions of the world and have the capability to turn into political forces themselves. Whereas extra refugees danger their lives to cross the English Channel and the Mediterranean, to not point out the Belarus-Poland border, our analysis has discovered that the images of those populations within the media have an effect on how individuals view and reply to migration points.

This phenomenon is described in social psychology because the “identifiable sufferer impact”. Folks interact otherwise with phrases and pictures in regards to the struggling of a single particular person somewhat than that of enormous teams. We’re prepared to supply higher assist to a single sufferer underneath hardship than to a bunch of individuals with the identical want. Elevated charity donations are an instance of this.

But within the mainstream media, photos of identifiable victims are the exception somewhat than the norm. Within the context of the Syrian refugee disaster, the bulk of reports photos in western media depict refugees as nameless, faceless plenty. These might both render audiences numb to the topics’ hardship or just fail to shift their attitudes or behaviours, as previous analysis suggests.


In set of latest research, we confirmed media photos of refugees to almost 4,000 European residents. We uncovered them to pictures of both giant teams, through which people usually are not identifiable, or small teams of identifiable refugees. We discovered that viewers dehumanised refugees extra strongly after they had been uncovered to pictures of them in giant teams.

We reached this conclusion by asking members to inform us the extent to which they suppose that refugees are able to experiencing sure feelings. We did this as a result of an essential dimension of dehumanisation is contemplating others as being much less able to experiencing secondary feelings that sometimes distinguish people from animals, resembling tenderness, guilt and compassion (versus major feelings which are shared with animals resembling worry, anger and pleasure).

We discovered that the members who noticed photos of refugees in giant teams attributed fewer secondary feelings to them. Curiously, we didn’t observe this distinction when members noticed photos of enormous teams of survivors of pure disasters.

We additionally checked out one other distinguishing characteristic of those photos: whether or not the topics had been depicted crossing a physique of water or travelling by land. One of the placing points of the imagery of refugee journeys has been their crossing of the Mediterranean Sea – being rescued or having drowned.

A young woman refugee wearing a face mask and headscarf rests her head on what looks like a large quilt or blanket.
Pictures of small teams or people usually tend to make viewers signal pro-refugee petitions or donate to charities.
Leonid Scheglov / EPA-EFE

Social scientists have speculated that the visible and linguistic portrayal of refugees utilizing metaphors of water (waves, tides and floods) reinforces the stereotype of refugees as probably threatening, uncontrollable brokers.

In our examine, the visible narrative of depicting giant teams of refugees within the sea resulted in even higher dehumanisation. This implies that present visible representations of refugees emphasise a safety subject somewhat than a humanitarian debate – refugees are depicted as “being a disaster” for host nations, somewhat than discovering themselves “in a disaster”.

Turning emotion to motion

We discovered that not solely do these variations in photos have an effect on our attitudes towards refugees, additionally they affect our behaviour and motion. We discovered that members who had been uncovered to pictures of enormous teams of refugees had been additionally extra more likely to endorse anti-refugee petitions and fewer more likely to endorse pro-refugee petitions.

We additionally examined whether or not publicity to those photos affected individuals’s help for political leaders. We discovered that viewing photos of enormous teams was related to elevated help for extra dominant and fewer trustworthy-looking political leaders.

A border force lifeboat carrying a group of people in orange life jackets to shore
Pictures of migrants crossing or being rescued from the English Channel are widespread in UK media, however can result in viewers dehumanising them.
Vickie Flores / EPA-EFE

Curiously, in our analysis, it was not the feelings that viewers attributed to the individuals in the images that drove political results. As a substitute, the driving issue gave the impression to be the precise feelings that the viewers themselves skilled (resembling diminished pity) when wanting on the photos of enormous teams.

There aren’t any impartial methods to visually depict human beings. Neither the medium of pictures itself can afford such neutrality, nor the photographers, the publishers or the viewers themselves.

The choice of what images to publish is usually made by editors who’re uncovered day by day to many photos of human struggling. Our analysis exhibits that these selections ought to take into account each the possible feelings audiences will “see” within the photos, but in addition the feelings they are going to “really feel”.


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