I’m sure you’ve all heard the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The idea is that an image can convey an idea that the written word alone cannot. This point is well understood by activists who seek to raise awareness of an issue, whether to effect political change, raise money, or simply to educate the public for its own good.
I recently watched a public service announcement about texting while driving, which sought to accomplish the third of those three goals. The advertisement (Editor’s note: video may be disturbing to some viewers) was made in Great Britain and produced such a strong reaction that it was picked up by American television and featured on the Today Show. The ad depicted a teenage girl driving a car that carried her friends. She had one eye on the road and another on her cell phone. She lifts her eyes off the screen just in time to see an oncoming vehicle smash into her car. You see the windshield break, which sends glass flying through the air, and the passengers of the car are violently whipped around. I will not go into any greater detail, but suffice it to say that it was much more explicit than your ordinary public service announcement.
The ad was very disturbing, and I know that was the point. Its purpose was to shock teenagers, to teach them that they are not invincible. While I think that is an admirable goal, I question the use of graphic imagery and emotional appeals as a way to change a person’s mind and behavior.
On the one hand, I think an explicit depiction of a situation or event is sometimes necessary to understand its importance. This is true for all sorts of issues that affect large numbers of people such as war, famine, poverty and disease. If you’re waging a campaign to prevent disease or alleviate poverty, what you’ll find is that playing on a person’s emotions is a good way to get them to act.
A psychologist from the University of Oregon named Paul Slovic has studied this phenomenon and has uncovered surprising knowledge about human empathy. He and a team of researchers presented subjects with the story of a hungry girl in Africa, and asked them how much money they would give her. Then they ask another group of subjects, “How much money would you give to 3 million hungry kids in Sudan?” and the number is half what the other group gave to the single girl.
What happens when you give the subjects the story of the girl and the numbers? When the subjects know that the little girl is just one of millions of other hungry kids, they give less money to Africa than they do to the little girl when she is presented alone.
How do we explain this? Slovic tells us that our minds are dancing between affect and reason. We identify with a single person on an emotional level, whereas our thinking is cold and calculated when we are given large numbers of people. When the researchers bring up the fact that the girl is just one of millions, it triggers our rational side, and this numbs us to their suffering.
As Slovic described it in an article in Foreign Policy Magazine, “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.”
All right, so why am I skeptical of using emotionally charged imagery? For the same reason I’m in favor of it, which is that it is not motivated by calm, cool reasoning. The trouble with using only the images or only the gut-wrenching stories is that we take our minds off the nicer details of the action, such as whether it really does any good. Donating to a charity makes us feel warm inside, but maybe we are donating to an inefficient charity, when there are other, more efficient charities out there. But because our brains are overcome with empathy, we are not thinking in terms of efficiency.
Neither are we thinking of the unintended consequences of our actions. Perhaps you want to lift Americans out of poverty, and think the way to do this is to raise the minimum wage. However, if raising the wage has the effect of laying off low productivity workers, as many economists believe, we should think twice before going through with it.
In conclusion, I think emotional appeals are necessary to draw attention to a previously ignored calamity, such as extreme poverty and genocide in Africa. At the same time, we can’t trust our emotions alone, and our decisions must ultimately be buttressed by reasoned analysis.