A War, a Boy on a Beach, and the Psychology of Humanitarian Crises

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What happened after a three-year-old refugee died fleeing the Syrian civil war?

By Nathan Collins


A makeshift shrine is pictured during the quiet vigil in remembrance of Aylan Kurdi on September 7th, 2015, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo: Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)

You remember the photograph: A little boy on a beach, his head turned a bit to the side, as if he had just fallen asleep. The boy had, in fact, drowned, a harrowing casualty of his family’s flight from war-torn Syria. Though the photo spurred the world to action, that momentum soon faded—a fact that, unfortunately, wasn’t much of a surprise.

What’s more remarkable, according to a strongly worded new study: By the time Aylan Kurdi drowned, hundreds of thousands had been killed in the war, and millions more had fled their homes or left the country altogether, according to a Guardian report (which cited statistics from the United Nations) that was published September 2nd, 2015, the day Kurdi died. Yet before that day and again soon after, private citizens’ interest and donations barely registered—a stark reminder that we’re not equipped to deal with disasters on the scale of the Syrian war.

“Iconic photos stir our emotions and transform our perspectives about life and the world in which we live,” University of Oregon Professor of Psychology Paul Slovic and his colleagues in Sweden and Canada write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Indeed, people are sometimes more likely to offer help after seeing photos and other identifying information featuring just one victim, something known as the “identifiable victim effect.”

We’re not equipped to deal with disasters on the scale of the Syrian war.

To track how that played out before and after Kurdi’s death, Slovic and his team first turned to Google Trends, basically a database of keywords Google users searched for. As you’d expect, searches for “Syria,” “refugees,” and “Aylan” peaked in early September. Before that, there were no searches for “Aylan,” and search intensities for “Syria” and “refugees” had hovered around one-tenth their September peak.

But by the end of September, searches for “Syria” and “refugees” had fallen substantially, and there were hardly any searches for “Aylan” at all, Slovic and his colleagues note.

The team saw basically the same effect in donations to a Swedish Red Cross campaign to aid Syrian refugees: There was a more than 100-fold increase in the number of donations per day after photos of Kurdi were published, and the average donation increased by a factor of 55, the researchers write. Six weeks later, however, donations were almost back to their pre-photo levels. The silver lining in that case: The Swedish Red Cross did manage to sign up many more monthly donors than they would otherwise have.

“Psychological research supports these observations. A single individual in distress, with a name and a face, often evokes a stronger response than multiple persons,” the researchers write, partly because the degree of our compassion doesn’t scale with the size of a crisis; even large numbers of evocative images, they point out, can end up leaving us numb.