While looking back and trying to make sense of a year just ended, we often focus on its most hopeless parts, the violence and acrimony. Last year did include plenty of negativity to mourn. But it also reminded us of an important lesson about how to access our better angels. Three recent events shined a light on how empathy works—and one reason why it often does not.

The first occasion involved the Syrian civil war. Over the course of four years, more than 200,000 Syrians were killed and over 3 million fled the country seeking refuge. The war sometimes made the news, but the humanitarian disaster didn’t receive much media attention, until this past September when coverage of the war and its displaced victims skyrocketed. The question of what to do with Syrian refugees, both in Europe and in America, filled front pages and presidential debates.

The second event centered on NFL defensive end Greg Hardy, who was given an $11.3 million contract by the Dallas Cowboys despite the fact that he was accused of beating his ex-girlfriend last year and then suspended by the league for part of this season. (Hardy was convicted but Nicole Holder, his ex-girlfriend, refused to participate in the appeal.) The Cowboys were criticized by many outsiders for hiring an apparent abuser, but the noise within the football world was relatively muted. That attitude flipped in early November. “What we’re talking about here is a guy who doesn’t deserve to be on an NFL roster,” said the prominent ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith, who had defended Hardy before making an about-face. “He needs to just be cut immediately.”

The third event came late last year, when the Obama administration announced it would begin protecting African lions under the Endangered Species Act. The decision will impose stricter rules for bringing live lions or trophy lion parts into the U.S, in an effort to ensure that hunting does not push the animals closer to extinction. Last month France imposed a complete ban on importing lion parts, and the UK is considering doing the same.

What accounts for all of these sudden changes in attitude? In each case, there was a signature photograph that opened people’s hearts.

For Syria, the change came through a heartrending photo of Aylan Kurdi, a drowned 3-year-old boy who washed up on a Turkish beach after his family tried to get to Greece on an overloaded boat. “It's like all the casualties we saw only ever registered in our heads without ever troubling our hearts. Well this week Aylan changed all that,” wrote British talk-show host Jeremy Kyle. “One picture broke the heart of the world.”

With Hardy, the change came with the release of photos of Holder showing the injuries she suffered at his hands. “We live in a very visual society and I’m a victim of that,” said Smith, explaining his change of heart. “When I saw those pictures for the first time Friday, I said, ‘My God, why is this guy in the NFL?’”

As for the lions, attitudes shifted when an American hunter killed Cecil—a beloved, dark-maned cat who lived in a protected area—and pictures of the dead animal came to light. The killing of Cecil had “changed the atmospherics on the issue of trophy hunting around the world,” according to the president of the Humane Society of the United States. “I think it gave less wiggle room to regulators.”

The commonality of these photos is that each shows an individual victim. We have all heard that one death is a tragedy, one million deaths a statistic. To perceive tragedy, we have to see a person (or, apparently, an animal) as an individual. Psychologists call this the “identifiable victim effect.” And one of the surest ways to see someone as an individual is to actually see them.

This graph and those following illustrate how attention to Syria's civil war and its refugees increased dramatically after the world saw photos of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after his family tried to flee to Greece. For the majority of the Syrian civil war, there were few searches for "Syria" or "refugees," showing low interest. (Paul Slovic / Google Trends)

In September of 2015, the photos of Aylan Kurdi appeared, pushing big increases for the terms "Syria" and also "Aylan" and "refugees," two terms that garnered little interest previously (Paul Slovic / Google Trends)

Interest in "Syria" and "refugees" has remained high for months after the appearance of the photos.
(Paul Slovic / Google Trends)

People who work in the empathy business know well about the identifiable-victim effect, even if they don’t use the name. Children International, for instance, has long entreated donors to “sponsor” individual kids; the youngsters get money to pay for things like medical care, while the donors get connections to the children they help—including a color photograph sent each year. Many other nonprofits recognize and take advantage of the fact that “the mind is very much geared to respond to a single person in need—whether it’s ourselves or a single person in front of us,” in the words of psychologist Paul Slovic.

In the late ‘90s, two Carnegie Mellon researchers presented test subjects with various dangerous scenarios and asked about the importance of saving the victims. They concluded that the effect seemed to come from the fact that an identifiable victim composes a sort of one-person group, and if that person dies, then the whole group is extinguished.

In a 2013 study, Slovic and his collaborators put volunteers in an fMRI scanner and watched how they made decisions about donating money to needy orphans. They found that the subjects chose to donate more when they saw a photo of the orphan than if they found out her name but saw no image or only a silhouette. The researchers found that the extra generosity seemed attributable to increased activity in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region associated with pleasure and reward. The study suggests that images may have a special power to generate the identifiable-victim effect by triggering positive arousal in the brain.

Of course, that power comes with a downside. Photographs are treasured for their ability to show us the world, but they are also notorious for their capacity to mislead. They can strip the context from long stories, reduce complicated issues to iconic moments, and manipulate our emotions using charismatic faces. By squeezing the world into two dimensions, they can hide its depth.

Science is helping to explain why photographs are so powerful, but it doesn't offer much help in how to use that power responsibly. It falls upon us to use images well.

It’s tempting to hope that we could harness and magnify the identifiable-victim effect to make everyone a selfless saint, deeply empathetic with all the impoverished people of the world. But human attention is limited and fickle. Many charitable groups are already using heart-tugging pictures of individual children to maximize the groups’ impact. It seems there may be a limited number of news events with great viral potential, where the plight of individuals draws our eyes to bigger issues like war-zone refugees, victims of abuse, or endangered species.

But on those occasions, there is potential for empathy to grow.