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The Current:
Spring 2007
From The Editors: The Sympathy Market
David Feith
At doorways, stairwell landings and bulletin boards across campus, we encounter images of humanitarian disasters: victims of violence in Darfur, Africans infected with AIDS, Gulf residents still clean­ing up from Katrina. The imagery of suffering has become familiar to us. It is certainly wide­spread, but how effective is it?

New research has highlighted the difficulty of the task facing humanitarian activists. It is not easy to move people enough to convert sympathy to action. According to University of Oregon psychology professor Paul Slovic, "Statistics of mass murder or genocide...fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action." Moreover, as Slovic's re­cent research findings point out, "not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action."

Slovic and others suggest that the evolu­tionary history of human beings is to blame for our weak comprehension of mass suffer­ing. Historically, humans deployed sympathy for their families, and perhaps for their fellow tribesmen, but not more widely. "There was no adaptive or survival value in protecting hun­dreds of thousands of people on the other side of the planet," Slovic writes.

However, we know that, instinctive or not, people today are often moved to help remote strangers. Slovic's research demonstrates that when that happens, the helpers feel motivated mainly by the desire to aid suffering individu­als (rather than groups), and are moved more by photographs than words about suffering. In one experiment, researchers made humanitar­ian appeals to people using different sets of in­formation. One set of information contained a picture of a starving African girl and brief text describing her situation. Another set included the same picture and description of the girl, and also additional information on how starva­tion is spreading generally. The results? People responded far more charitably to the first pre­sentation than the second. As Temple Univer­sity professor John Allen Paulos put it, "Aston­ishingly, adding the statistical description to the picture and personal information actually de­creased [the humanitarian contribution]." He concluded that "one inference from this work is that for most people, a compelling picture of an individual is worth a thousand statistics."

The average person may be moved only a little by reports that 200,000-400,000 Darfuri­ans have been killed and 2,000,000 displaced. But there is hope in the possibility of eliciting sympathetic and energetic reactions from peo­ple when they are shown the right kind of pho­tographs.

In 1936, Robert Capa captured a real-time image of a falling Spanish soldier in a photo­graph celebrated for having broken new ground in the field of war-zone and humanitarian imag­ery. Seventy years after Capa's time, embed­ded war-zone reporting continually delivers digital images of war and suffering around the world. Emotional images once conveyed only in poetry or lore now circulate daily as photo­graphs and video.

Given the new technology, humanitar­ian groups have forged partnerships with the imaging industry. In one case, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (A.A.A.S), which runs a program dedicated to satellite imagery and geospatial technology, has partnered with Amnesty International U.S.A, the U.N. Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, the National Resources Defense Council, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the U.S. Campaign for Burma. The Executive Director of Amnesty International U.S.A, Larry Cox, noted that "new satellite technology pro­vides the unprecedented ability to document human rights abuses." Some satellite imaging companies, such as DigitalGlobe, are even pro­viding humanitarian organizations with images at a discounted price. "Perhaps someday in the future the technology will make it possible to intervene earlier in a human rights crisis, before it's too late," said Alan Leshner, the C.E.O. of A.A.A.S.

Leshner seems to assume that the prolifera­tion of evocative images will ensure humanitar­ian intervention. That may be wishful think­ing. In the years since Capa, many analysts of humanitarian movements have written about the limits of the effectiveness of humanitarian imagery.

The critic Susan Sontag pointed out that "photographs shock insofar as they show some­thing novel." Although the spread of imaging technology can help spot and publicize suffer­ing, it can desensitize us in the process; even terrible images fail to shock when they are fa­miliar. "Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised," Sontag wrote, and images that once did move us—and still should—no longer do.

Does current humanitarian imagery, then, inform us of too much suffering? We can know of more large-scale, ongoing humanitarian trag­edies than we can count on one hand. And we can view images of these tragedies with clicks of a mouse. In time, we become aware of so much suffering that we fail to muster consistent­ly strong responses to all of it.

Inaction, even in the face of documented suf­fering, may result from the thought that action will be useless. That may help explain why, as in Slovic's research, a simple picture of a suffer­ing person can elicit more humanitarian action than a presentation about the enormous scope of Africa's starvation problems. To a potential donor, the chance to help an individual is more motivational than the prospect of plunging into a seemingly hopeless problem that afflicts mil­lions of people.

The challenge for humanitarian activists is to move the public with dramatic images that grab attention and stimulate sympathy, but not with images that communicate hopelessness, or the inevitability of suffering.

Columbia economics professor Xavier Sala-i-Martin, who works on African development, stresses the sad state of African public relations. Most Westerners associate Africa with images of misery and famine, he says. Many cannot even imagine a prosperous Africa. The idea of major progress is made unrealistic in people's minds by the steady stream of horrific imagery coming out of Africa. Studies like those of D.J. Clark in the Journal of International Development support this analysis and connect the problem specifically to mass media circulation practices. A majority of Britons born after 1984, for ex­ample, associate Ethiopia primarily with famine even though the last major Ethiopian famine took place before these Britons were born.

This problem is hardly limited to the Afri­can continent. In Bangladesh, librarians testify that journalists most frequently request images of "floods, cyclones and slums" for reports on the country, and rarely if ever request to print pictures of Bangladeshis working at computers. Surely, this is not an argument against showing photographic evidence of catastrophes that re­quire aid. But there can be downsides to the fact that, as one photographer put it, "you only need to see one of these pictures one time and the name 'Africa' written next to it, and you will never forget."

Building on the premise that Africans' de­piction as constant sufferers is a self-defeating strategy, Sala-i-Martin stresses the importance of images that show a developing and improv­ing Africa—one that supports hope and inspires action. The banner image on the homepage of his development organization, CEOs Without Borders, shows an African man speaking on a cell phone in front of a modern building. It is not the image many come to expect when con­sidering Africa. But Sala-i-Martin seeks to in­spire investment in Africa, and investors—even more so than humanitarians, perhaps—dislike hopeless endeavors. Though entrepreneurial investment is different from humanitarian char­ity, some of the sentiments driving each may be similar.

For students and citizens who want actually to do good—and not just feel good—in the field of humanitarian affairs, this is a model worth considering.

- David Feith
Editor-in-Chief

djf2103@columbia.edu


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