The Syrian refugee crisis had been raging for nearly five years, and millions displaced, when one photograph changed the entire global conversation. The lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a beach after drowning while attempting a dangerous escape to Europe on a flimsy raft, cut through all the noise. The picture from a faraway beach near Bodrum, Turkey, is likely seared in your mind, and heart. The impact was immediate and dramatic. One charity, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, said it received a 15-fold increase in donations within 24 hours. Kurdi’s family was headed to join relatives in Canada; his death is often credited with vaulting Justin Trudeau, and his pro-refugee stance, to power.
One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
Social scientists have been studying this truism for some time, and its power is universal: It’s known as the “Identifiable Victim Effect.” In short, people are far more likely to be moved by the story of a single individual than facts and figures about a large group or trend. Charities have known this for some time. That’s why TV advertisements calling for donations are more likely to feature a single victim than an infographic showing the depth of the problem. Research supports this approach; one study showed people were willing to donate 75% more to a cause when they are told a child beneficiary’s name and shown a picture.