Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

From counting to caring

Sympathy with mass human crises may capture attention but do not always translate into action – and even in cases where it does, the action is more often than not transient, at least according to a new research studying the ebb and flow of empathetic response to humanitarian disasters.

Researchers from the US, Canada and Sweden probed the spike of donations for Syrian refugees and related internet searches after a photograph of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach in Turkey emerged and went viral. It garnered views by 20 million people on social media alone on September 2, 2015, the day it was published for the first time.

The iconic photo of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face-down at an empty shoreline highlighted the plight of Syrian refugees and the many dangers they face fleeing war. And the research shows that the photo did quickly draw people’s attention to a much greater extent than hundreds of thousands of deaths, judging by previous statistical reports. “New behavioral data from information searches and donations demonstrates that, in this case, an iconic photo of a single child was worth more than hundreds of thousands of statistical lives,” says the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

But people’s empathy also waned quickly. “This empathetic response was short-lived,” reads the research, which noted that donations subsided significantly even as the Syrian crisis endured.

“These data illustrate the iconic victim effect …. Does the iconic victim response diminish rapidly as the image fades from memory and the media lose interest? Judging from the foregoing data, this appears to be the case.”

You can read the full research here.

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