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Know Your Nuggets: The Identifiable Victim Effect

Bob Sullivan

Editor's Note: We love behavioral principles distilled into short, easily digestible catch phrases…pithy bits of science, tiny slices of knowledge, little drops of insights. We call them “Nerd Nuggets” because we’re that kind of cool. So, to keep us all on the same page, we’ve created this ongoing series, Know Your Nuggets.

p.s. Bear with us on this one. It starts a little gloomy, but that’s to make a point. Emotions, you know? They’re powerful things.



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.

Substitute "victim" with "consumer" or "employee" and you might be able to utilize many of the techniques here. 

The impact of using a single person or story to represent an entire cause ranges far beyond charitable giving, however. It's why so many laws have names. There are myriad examples: “Megan’s Law,” named for a victim of repeat sex offenders; “Phoebe’s Law," for a bullying victim; and the Ryan White Care Act, for an AIDS victim.

There are cognitive reasons why stories — particularly tales of individuals — cut through the noise. For starters, our brains are wired to argue over facts and figures, but not with emotional stories. That's because data lights up our prefrontal cortex and its high-level thinking. A story, however, tugs right at the emotional limbic system, which is powerless to debate.

The identifiable victim effect is about more than creating a quick emotional response, however. It works within the world of stories. Stories are also far more memorable than data, which can often fall out of your head like water off a duck's back (Editor’s note: Or like olde tyme metaphors about water fowl. C’mon Bob!) 

There are cognitive reasons why stories — particularly tales of individuals — cut through the noise. 

A "poster child" can be the key to all sorts of successful communication.  Marketing firm OneSpot claims that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts. Some scientists believe stories stick because of the theory of “vividness.” Hearing a story can make the same part of the brain light up that would if the listener actually lived through the event themselves. This is why horror movies sell so well. Viewers' brains actually believe the monster is chasing them personally. 

More recent research suggests another reason stories work so well is because we are natural daydreamers.  Our brains are "greedy" for stories. We spend almost half our waking hours daydreaming — with the average dream lasting around 14 seconds. The only thing that can stop this perpetual internal channel surfing may be a very good story.

Companies trying to cut through an increasingly noisy world must enter into this "competitive attention economy," and that means embracing stories, and tools that work with them, like the identifiable victim effect. The impact can reach beyond "victims," of course — substitute "victim" with "consumer" or "employee" and you can utilize many of the storytelling techniques suggested here. That's why an employee of the month program works, and why specific customer testimonials are more powerful than data points like, "92% are satisfied."

Want a company website with more impact? Tell your personal story on your About Us page. Want a conference that leaves attendees inspired? Highlight an employee or customer with a particularly emotional tale to tell.

One last point: How powerful, but fragile, is the identifiable victim effect?  When people learn about it, it can be disabled. One study showed that people who are “primed” about it before seeing a sympathetic story end up donating less. So that means the theatrical integrity of your story must be preserved.  Don’t overdo it. Don’t be formulaic.  Ronald Reagan’s use of characters during State of the Union addresses was legendary, but more recently, SOTU viewers have become familiar with (cynical about?) such characters. So keep your stories fresh, keep them sincere, and if you’re a charitable person, don’t let this newfound knowledge of the identifiable victim effect stop you from donating to those in need.

Bob Sullivan


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