Pathways to Eliciting Aid: The Effects of Visual Representations of Human Suffering on Empathy and Help for People in Need

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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perspective taking
geographic distance
sensory proximity
humanitarian aid
visual images
Mass Communication
Other Communication
Social Influence and Political Communication
Social Psychology
Social Welfare
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Cao, Xiaoxia

This dissertation investigates how the media representation of a victim of a chronic problem can induce empathy and help for the victim group and whether taking the perspective of the victim is necessary for experiencing empathy for him or her. Three characteristics of media messages examined here are the overt emotional expressions, geographic proximity and sensory proximity (manifested via a picture of a victim’s suffering experience and facial close-ups used to frame the victim) of a victim. Two experiments were conducted to test the effects of these characteristics on the audience’s empathic concern, perspective taking, attitudes toward the interventions that benefit the victim group, and personal helping behavior to the group. According to the two studies, the actual geographic distance between a suffering victim and the audience has little effects on the outcome variables, whether a picture of the victim is present or not. Exposure to the picture, however, elicits empathic concern for the victim; the evoked empathic concern, in turn, produces favorable attitudes toward the interventions and helping behavior. In contrast to the positive effect of the picture on empathic concern, seeing the picture reduces perspective taking on the part of the audience. Furthermore, exposure to a victim’s overt emotional expressions increases empathic concern but reduces perspective taking. The positive effect of the emotional expressions on empathic concern is also more evident when the victim is framed in close-ups than when s/he is portrayed from medium perspectives. However, neither the positive effect of the emotional expressions nor the interaction between the emotional expressions and camera perspectives on empathic concern results in favorable attitudes toward the interventions or helping behavior. Facial close-ups of a victim do not heighten the audience’s empathic feelings for the victim, nor do the close-ups produce support for the interventions or personal aid. Finally, the strengths and limitations of each study, the theoretical and practical implications of the findings and possible directions for future research are discussed.

Dr. Diana Carole Mutz
Dr. Katherine Sender
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<p>Cao, X. (2010). <em>Pathways to eliciting aid: The effects of visual representations of human suffering on empathy and help for people in need.</em> (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ScholarlyCommons. (ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Accession Order No. 3447503)</p>
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