Identifiable Victim Effect

What is it?

The Identifiable Victim Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals are more inclined to help or feel empathy toward a single, identifiable victim in need compared to a larger, less identifiable group. This bias is driven by the emotional impact of a specific person's suffering and can influence decision-making in areas like charitable donations and resource allocation. It highlights the role of empathy and emotional connection in motivating people to take action to help others.


Video by Sprouts Learning Co. | Used under Creative Commons license

How it relates to disinformation?

Manipulation of Emotions: Disinformation campaigns often aim to evoke strong emotional responses by presenting identifiable victims who have allegedly suffered due to a particular issue or cause. These emotional stories can make false information more persuasive and memorable.

Confirmation Bias: People are more likely to believe and share disinformation when it aligns with their preexisting beliefs and emotions. The Identifiable Victim Effect can amplify this bias by presenting emotional stories that resonate with individuals' existing views.

Selective Attention: Disinformation that features identifiable victims may receive more attention from individuals who are drawn to emotional narratives. This can lead to the spread of false information, as people focus on stories that confirm their beliefs.

Moral Outrage: Emotional stories featuring identifiable victims can trigger moral outrage, which can motivate individuals to share disinformation without fact-checking. This amplifies the spread of false information through social media and other platforms.

Misleading Narratives: Disinformation often manipulates the Identifiable Victim Effect by presenting emotionally charged stories that support a particular agenda. These narratives can mislead the public and sway opinions.

Resource Allocation: In the context of disinformation, resources for combating false information might be allocated based on public outrage over identifiable victims rather than a rational assessment of the most pressing issues.

What can I do about Identifiable Victim Effect?

  1. Be critical of all information, regardless of its source. In fact, be extra critical of information coming from people you like, follow or hold in high esteem. Remember, everyone makes mistakes!
  2. Don't rush to repeat, like or share information just because it comes from a person who you like, follow or hold in high esteem. Run a quick check before taking action and make an extra effort to look specifically for opposing views.
  3. If you need to choose who to work, or play with, in a team or who to hire for a job, ask for different opinions or bring someone else into the decision,  anonymise the process, strip the unnecessary information and reduce it to the relevant factors only (e.g. experience, success rate, etc.), avoid making decisions based on looks, make a pro and con list.

Suggested use in training

  • Organise debates on controversial topics that may involve emotional narratives. Encourage participants to research and present evidence-based arguments. After the debates, facilitate discussions on how emotions can influence opinions and the importance of evidence-based decision-making.
    Outcome: Participants will develop the ability to engage in constructive debates, consider diverse viewpoints, and critically assess emotional narratives within a broader context.
  • Present participants with examples of emotionally charged stories or content from various sources. Ask them to identify elements that trigger emotional responses and discuss how these tactics can influence perception. Provide guidelines for fact-checking and verifying emotional stories.
    Outcome: Participants will develop the ability to critically analyse content that exploits emotions and understand the importance of fact-checking before accepting emotional narratives.