Science

Can Shocking Images Persuade Doubters of COVID’s Dangers?


As the pandemic grinds on, many people are exhausted by conversations with friends and family who downplay the risks of COVID-19. Masks really do work. It isn’t “just the flu.” Please don’t go to that indoor gathering or sing in the church choir. We share articles and statistics; friends and family sometimes respond with misinformation or apathy for established fact. We correct mistakes and encourage compliance with sensible rules. All too often, our efforts to persuade fail.

Persuasion fatigue is setting in. How can we cut through the noise of debate? Is there a better way to show people that COVID-19 is indeed a serious threat? Such questions feel urgent in view of skyrocketing cases and overburdened hospitals. Our loved ones may be acting as if business is usual.

Here is one suggestion we’ve heard. When words and numbers don’t move your audience, try to convince them with pictures instead. Images are visceral reminders of the pandemic’s dangers, revealing unsettling events behind closed doors, showing us suffering’s human face. Could our sadness, frustration, and outrage about America’s public health catastrophe be distributed by visual means? The right images might help others see the pandemic more like we do.

According to Harvard art historian Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, the pandemic will change us only if it “penetrate[s] our hearts as well as our minds. Images force us to contend with the unspeakable.” Another commentator, journalist and former emergency-room physician Elisabeth Rosenthal, recommends public health ads switch from “cute, warm and dull” messages to ones that strike fear in our hearts. “Mister Rogers-type nice isn’t working in many parts of the country,” writes Rosenthal.

The idea that shock persuades is compelling to many. An intense picture, we feel, can break through people’s mistaken opinions. But is that really true? Is there evidence showing that shocking images reliably persuade?

Although the matter is complicated, it’s doubtful you can simply shock people into collective agreement. We note three relevant examples.

During the Vietnam War, newspapers printed brutal photos of war-making and anguish. Commentators later claimed those images—including Nick Ut’s horrific 1972 photo of a Vietnamese girl burned by napalm—increased domestic opposition to the war. But Gallup polling reveals no shift in public opinion about the war consequent to well-known photos. Support for the war had already hit its lowest point before the graphic images even appeared.

Laboratory studies have also called into doubt the power of disturbing photographs to convince. For example, explicit images are sometimes thought to bias juries in legal trials; but a 2018 meta-analysis of 23 studies found that shocking photos did not have a robust effect on mock jurors’ judgments, compared to neutral photos. More work is needed before broad conclusions can be drawn, but the results show that disturbing images deliver less oomph than we feel like they should.

Finally, in December 2020 we showed 510 participants several disturbing photos related to the pandemic—for example, of hospital workers lifting corpses in body bags onto a refrigerated semitrailer. We found that most people did not change their COVID-19 threat assessments after viewing the images. The exceptions were participants who already perceived the virus as a threat: some of them became even more convinced of its risks. For those who began our study doubting the virus’s danger, the photos did little to change their opinion.

As it turns out, Lewis and Rosenthal aren’t alone in their confidence in shock’s power. In our study, we found that participants also believed shocking images would deliver a persuasive punch, moving people’s attitudes about the risks of the coronavirus. Our participants thought that the more shocking a photo is to them, the more likely it is to change others’ attitudes. Why do we get that wrong?

It’s a problem of perspective. Psychologists have uncovered many kinds of “empathy gaps” in perspective-taking. In these gaps, there’s distance between us and others’ thoughts and feelings—especially our ideological opponents. Viewing disturbing images, we use the sadness or outrage we ourselves feel as a guide to understand how others will feel. The more something feels compelling to us, the more we believe others feel it’s compelling, too. That’s why we believe shock will force others to reconsider mistaken views.

But there’s a lesson in our data for anyone seeking an irresistibly persuasive image. Even after accounting for age, sex, ethnicity, education, income and political orientation, only one thing predicted how shocked people were by the images: their initial perceptions of COVID-19’s threat. If you entered our study doubting the threat, the images didn’t shock you and, accordingly, didn’t move your thinking.

Our judgments about others’ emotional reactions are often miscalibrated. And when we can’t simulate what people feel, we can’t simulate how they think. In our study, the images were less disturbing to participants who were less threatened by the pandemic—one person’s shock is another person’s shrug.

One might worry our findings contradict well-established research showing that fear can sometimes persuade. For instance, take the ghastly photos on cigarette packaging in some countries: tobacco-ravaged gumlines, diseased lungs, and worse. Pictorial warnings have been found to reduce people’s motivation to smoke. But they do not increase the perceived health risks of smoking. In other words, the efficacy of antismoking images seemingly lies in reminding us what we already know about the risks. We all know smoking is bad for one’s health, so the shocking pictures needn’t prove that point from scratch.

In contrast, what’s often at stake in our pandemic debates is whether or not the virus is a true risk. In our study, not everyone agreed that COVID-19 is a legitimate threat, and the pictures didn’t shock unbelievers into thinking otherwise. Images can be effective reminders of persuasive arguments; but when using images to persuade, we may take for granted precisely what we’re trying to prove.

We affirm the power of photographs to help us understand our world and each other. Troubling images may become tools for people to reach new beliefs. Yet we must all be mindful of how easily we misunderstand what’s evocative to others.

Images promise instant enlightenment—a fast fix for a distorted worldview. But this is often an illusion in entrenched disputes. The capital-T truth we see in a shocking image may largely reflect back to us our own belief. Using images as arguments requires humility and nuance.

Engaging family and friends in debate is tiresome, and the allure of shock is a speedy end to exhausting conversations. The shortcut isn’t ensured to work, though—it could even backfire, leading our loved ones to resent us and our “scare tactics.” Seeking to understand others’ thoughts and feelings is part of the hard work of persuasion. We owe it to those we love to keep trying.

 

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