How to prick the conscience of a dictator & why the ‘poster child’ works.

These two topics may at first seem unrelated so bare with me. The answers to both questions are rooted in how our brains work. They are, in some respects, intuitive. They are also fundamental to how we approach campaigning for social change, and in particular how we use visual media.

Lets start with what may be a familiar economics experiment called ‘The Ultimatum Game.’ For those unfamiliar with the game it goes like this; two people are paired and one is given $10. This person (the proposer) gets to decide how the money is split between the two of them. The second person (the responder) gets to accept or reject the offer. If the offer is accepted each gets to keep their respective amounts. If rejected no one gets anything.

What tends to happen is that the proposer, rather than offer a small amount (say $1) and pocket the rest, usually offers close to 50%. What they understand is that if they offer a low amount the responder, rather than cut their losses and take what ever is offered (after all, anything better than $0 is a win for them), they punish the proposer by rejecting ‘unfair’ amounts. In some ways this appears illogical – the responder should take what ever is on offer. But that inner sense of what is ‘right’ is vital to social interactions. The game taps into a whole load of sympathetic human instincts based on us being a social animal. It is also worth noting at this point that this experiment gets the same results where ever it is conducted, but it Germany, Japan or Indonesia.

A variation on ‘The Ultimatum Game’ is ‘The Dictator Game.’ Here the set up is the same except the proposer dictates how much the responder will get. Yet even here the proposer ‘dictator’ tends to give away around 30% of the $10. Even when they don’t need to be generous they are. That is unless the game is changed slightly. In the first two versions of the game both proposer and responder have sat opposite each other. The third variation is set up like ‘The Dictator Game’ but with the proposer ‘dictator’ in a separate room to the responder. In this set up the dictator offers far smaller amounts to the responder. It is all in the distance. The lack of interaction with the person you are screwing, the isolation from those who suffer from your greed, makes us insensitive (which may do some way to explaning the move of the Burmese captial to Naypyidaw).

Here is another experiment. People in this experiment are asked a simple question – ‘How much would you be willing to donate to a charitable cause?’ It was found that when shown a photo of a malnourished Malawian child the average donation was $2.50. However, when given a wealth of statistics on the scale of malnutrition in Malawi, its impact on millions of children and the mortality rate (rather than the photo), people gave 50% less. One photo and an individual tragic story generated double the amount of money compared to the information presenting the true scope of the problem. The stats just didn’t tap into the innate sympathetic parts of our brain.

So, what does all this have to do with visual media and social activism? Well, it goes back to a point I and many others have made regarding bridging the empathetic gap. Usually, this is raised in reference to mobilising people to take action e.g. getting the public to write to MPs etc. But what ‘The Dictator Game’ shows us is that our primary target should be those in power. The trouble is we are showing them the wrong things. We tend to target them with detailed, legalistic, scientific research reports, briefings or submissions. We stand up in UN forums or government lobbying meetings and present ‘serious’ information. We enter into a particular form of information exchange that often deliberately excludes individual stories and predominantly uses text rather than images. But what this does is to actually allow those in power to avoid having to deal emotionally with the issues. They get the cold stats and can respond in a cold way. Rather than ‘speaking truth to power’ we should be ‘showing individual truths to power.’ What needs reinforcing is their empathetic link to those they serve, their constituents. Stats are for technocrats to implement, individual visual stories win hearts (or more accurately, fire the sympathetic regions of our brains). That is not to say good solid research is not important (you need to show context and breadeth of impact), but by relying solely on this type of communication we are failing to understand how the mind works. For example, picture this. An NGO rep stands up at the UN Human Rights Council and reads out a statement about how hundreds, if not thousands, were killed due to the Sri Lankan army shelling hospitals in its offensive against the LTTE in 2009. Now imagine instead of them reading out the statement they show you footage of this, not just the carnage but interviews with the families who survived, who lost their wives, husbands and children. The impact, emotions and outrage in that room would, I believe, be entirely different. That is why the C4 documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields‘ caused such a storm and the governemnt made such efforts to rebut and discredit the footage.

Another lesson is what most NGOs, especially development organisations, knew all along. The ‘poster child’, no matter what political or ideological problems we may have with it, works. That is not to excuse the lazy trotting out of the emaciated mother and child every time a famine is declared. But it does demonstrate that people respond to human stories, at least in the immediate sense in that they give money. What we need to work on is getting less desperate stories to people about the lives of those less fortunate before things reach these extremes. We need stories that people can empathise with, not based on tragedy but identity. These need to shun stereotypes, but to do that NGOs need to take risks, be innovative and not be afraid to show the nuisances of life in the places they work e.g. its not all tragedy, that in fact people have a good time and are getting on with their lives like we all try to do. Stories that put us across the table to those in need in order that we give a fair response rather than isolate us further.

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