When was the last time you changed your mind about something? What brought an important issue to your attention? Chances are it was something you saw, rather than something you read.
The right image can be a powerful way capture and engage people with an important issue.
For many of us, the haunting and graphic images of toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore focused our attention on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Yet not all images are created equal. Some are better than others. Some may even hurt your cause.
For example, although they grab our attention, familiar and iconic images used in communications about climate change (i.e., smokestacks, polar bears) fail to make us feel like we can do anything about climate change.
So which images are best?
What properties of images increase the likelihood that the reader will engage with your overall message? My research on images used in communications about sustainable urban stormwater management found that images are more likely to engage when they:
1. Evoke an emotional connection
Images are highly emotive and emotions help shape attitudes. Given that images are the first thing people see on a webpage or news article, they can create a connection with your message before a single word has even been read.
Critically, different emotions can give rise to different motivations. For example, to approach or to avoid. For this reason it is important to select images that evoke emotions what psychologists call an ‘approach motivation’. That is, emotions that encourage the reader to pay attention to your message. Positive emotions, like happiness and pride, are known to have an approach motivation. Some negative emotions, like sadness and anger, can also motivate people to engage with your message. However, you should try to avoid images that elicit emotions with strong avoidance motivations, like disgust and fear. Such emotions may encourage the reader to simply switch off and not pay attention to your message.
2. Relevant to the topic
When presenters use images in presentations that are congruent with what they saying, people are more likely to remember the message. This is because images that are not immediately understood as relevant to the topic reduce the ease with which the viewer can process your message. That is, irrelevant images increase the mental effort needed to process the overall message and can become a distraction.
To avoid using irrelevant images, don’t make assumptions about what your target audience does and doesn’t understand about the issue you are communicating. For example, a cleaner ocean is a major goal of improved urban stormwater management initiatives, so images of ocean environments are often used in communications new stormwater initiatives. Unfortunately, our recent image study found that most people did not think that pictures of oceanic environments were relevant to the topic of stormwater management.
3. Personally relevant
If the viewer sees something in an image that is personally relevant to them, they are more likely to engage with the message content.
To increase the personal relevance of your message, choose images of locations that are highly familiar to your viewer (the more local, the better) or choose photographs of people that your target audience are more likely to identify with. For example, using images of melting ice caps to communicate about climate change suggests that the impacts are happening somewhere else to someone else. Conversely, images of extreme weather events (for example, in Australia, flooding is a major concern), highlight a more localised, and personally relevant, impact of climate change.
- Tracy Schultz
In the United States, politicians have been publicly accusing town hall protesters of being paid agitators. For some, the idea of ‘the usual suspects’ at social protests suggests wild-eyed do-gooders who are passionate about a range of causes. For others, an angry mob with no loyalty to any one cause.
Who are ‘the usual suspects’?: Identifying multi-cause protesters
To date, psychological research has largely not grappled with the question of multi-cause protesters. We know people support certain causes because of specific grievances or identities. For example, women exposed to sexism are more likely to be feminist. But it’s not well understood why people engage on multiple fronts of collective action.
Using survey responses from Australians protesting in 2003 anti-Iraq war rallies, we investigated the relationships between an individual’s activist network and their activism across time and causes.
5 reasons people engage in collective action for multiple causes
Our studies highlight five key factors that affect whether an individual would identify as an activist and take action for multiple causes.
When people succeed, or at least believe that success is possible, they feel “we can win, I can help, and we can do this together.” These beliefs transfer across to new causes they believe in.
2. Dispelling the activist myth
People can be critical of activists and some people may be fearful of getting involved in community action because of negative stereotypes. However, unfounded fears fade away after a first experience with community groups. People are ready to do more once they know what they’re signing up for.
3. New knowledge
When taking part in collective action, individuals are exposed to new social and political knowledge and become aware of privilege—something that used to be called “consciousness raising” in the old days. People in one group (e.g., against a local polluter) might teach you about a bigger picture (e.g., the environmental movement), and that will lead to more activism.
4. Growing trust
The mutual trust and respect that people build up as members of one group can transfer to the other groups and causes those activists support. It is therefore valuable for groups to be internally diverse because their message and the trust associated with it spreads farther into more communities and networks.
5. They were asked
Being directly invited by members of one group to become involved in other groups and causes is a factor increasing multi-cause activism. Being asked is one of the strongest predictors of collective action in any cause!
People won’t take action in new causes if their early experiences are negative
Of course, the flip side of the above are also true. Unrealistic expectations and perceived failure can be demoralising and lead to withdrawal. Scary or violent experiences, information that seems to conflict too much with one’s own political views, and hearing one’s own community or side of politics mocked and put down can be off-putting to new activists. Those factors can prevent people who are exposed to one group from taking on board the bigger networks of causes and actions.
In sum, early experiences in activism determine the degree to which a person identifies as an ‘activist’ and the way their social action spreads across multiple domains of collective action.
We continue to work on this question of spreading activism. I’m currently asking what leads people to disengage, up the ante, or radicalise after success or failure of collective action. Tulsi Achia is studying ally activism and Cassandra Chapman investigates how people choose which charities to support and how donors come to support multiple charitable causes. Finally, Nita Lauren asks how you can graduate people from doing easy forms of sustainable action or environmental activism to more difficult ones.
Stay tuned for our latest findings on how people work to change the world for the better.
- Winnifred R. Louis
Read the full article:
Louis, W. R., Amiot, C. E., Thomas, E. F. & Blackwood, L.M. (2016). The ‘Activist Identity’ and activism across domains: A multiple identities analysis. Journal of Social Issues, 72 (2), 242-263. doi: 10.1111/josi.12165
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.