Professor Manos Tsakiris leads on the BIAS (Body and Image in Arts and Sciences) project located at the Warburg Institute. The BIAS project is an innovative interdisciplinary research program that merges perspectives from cognitive neurosciences and psychology with those from the humanities and arts to study the performative power of images. 

In this article, Manos gives details on some of the findings of one of BIAS’s latest research projects, When the lens is too wide: the visual dehumanization of refugees and its political consequences, which investigates the power of images in shaping political behaviour and particularly looks at the visual dehumanization of refugees as an example.

As part of the “Body & Image in Arts & Science” (BIAS) project at the Warburg Institute, Ruben Azevedo,  Sophie De Beukelaer, Isla Jones,  Lou Safra and myself investigated the power of images in shaping attitudes and political behaviour. Images have been shown to have substantial political capital that can translate into concrete action. For example, it was the publication of images of the 3-year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi (Photo by Nilufer Demir/Getty), who drowned on 2 September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea, that prompted the EU’s change of policy on refugees and led to a 10-fold increase in the number of monthly donors to the Swedish Red Cross1. Thus, images in the media can shape individual behavior and even politics for the better.

Three-year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi (Photo by Nilufer Demir/Getty), who drowned on 2 September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea.

Social psychology has described in detail the ‘identifiable victim effect’ and how its visualization can elicit empathic responses, as well as lead to pro-social actions such as charity donations2. But are such photojournalistic images, like the one of Aylan, the ones we most commonly see in the media?

Images of identifiable victims are the exception rather than the norm. In the context of the refugee crisis, the majority of news images in Western media depicts them as large anonymised, faceless masses, as evidenced by media and cultural studies 3–6. Hence, audiences are predominantly exposed to visual framings of large, unidentifiable groups. And while the effects of the visual depiction of single individuals on charitable donations are well-known7, the ways in which the dominant and mainstream visual framing of large groups operates, and its social and political consequences, remain unknown.

In our research, we addressed this question. Specifically, we posed the hypothesis that not only this depiction of refugees in large groups portrays them in less humane ways, as social sciences and humanities have suggested4, but crucially that exposure to such depictions has a dehumanizing capacity. We set out to empirically investigate this hypothesis by assessing how exposure to different visual framings (e.g. refugees depicted as large or small groups, on land, or in the sea) may lead to greater or lesser implicit dehumanization8 of the depicted outgroups and what, if any, are the subsequent political consequences.

Using photojournalistic images documenting refugees, we conducted nine studies (total N=3,072 EU citizens) employing a wide range of methodologies, and related our findings to ongoing cross-disciplinary debates about the performative and political power of images.

Taken together, our findings show that exposing participants to images of refugees depicted in large groups, as opposed to small groups, results in greater implicit dehumanization using two different measures; this effect does not generalize to the visual depiction of other large groups (e.g. survivors of natural disasters. Beyond the visual framing of group size, the visual narrative of depicting large groups of refugees in the sea, one of the main visual narratives of the Syrian refugee crisis, results in even greater dehumanization. Images of large groups of refugees are also explicitly rated as more dehumanizing, and when coupled with meta-data (e.g. newspaper headlines), images continue to play a significant and independent role on how (de)humanizing we perceive a newspaper front cover to be. Beyond the significant and measurable effect on attitudes, we also demonstrate the political consequences of this visual framing. In particular, exposure of audiences to images of large groups of refugees predicts reduced endorsement of pro-refugees petitions9, and also increased support for more dominant and less trustworthy political leaders10.

Given the media prevalence of specific visual framings, such as the ones investigated in our studies, the effects we report have important implications. What we see in the media and how it is shown not only has consequences for the ways in which we relate to other human beings and our behaviour towards them but, ultimately, for our political systems. These implications are even more critical in the age of visual politics, in a culture that is powered by images at an unprecedented level across geographical boundaries, as the recent ‘migrant caravan’ in America and its visualization demonstrates.

This research is available to read online here


Figure caption: (A) Prior to exposure to photographs of either Large Groups or Small Groups of Refugees, participants completed a leader choice task. They had to choose which face out of a pair of avatar faces, scaled according to Trustworthiness and Dominance, they would vote for in hypothetical upcoming national election. During the exposure phase, participants saw 25 images depicting refugees either in Large or Small Groups and rated how distressful each image was on a VAS scale (0-not distressing at all; 100 – highly distressing). After exposure, they completed again the task. Images depicted here are illustrative examples of the visual framing (i.e. were not presented in any of our studies) Source: Wikimedia Commons, top left, top right, bottom left , bottom right.

(B): Raincloud plot with fitted values of the main effects of Visual framing on the probability of choosing a strong leader after exposure to images relative to the pre-exposure phase. After exposure to photos of large groups of refugees, participants significantly chose a more dominant and less trustworthy leader in comparison to the exposure to photos of small groups of refugees (p<0.05).


1.             Slovic, P., Västfjäll, D., Erlandsson, A. & Gregory, R. Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 114, 640–644 (2017).

2.             Lee, S. & Feeley, T. H. The identifiable victim effect: a meta-analytic review. Soc. Influ. 11, 199–215 (2016).

3.             Butler, J. Frames of War. Text 96, (2010).

4.             Bleiker, R. Visual Global Politics. (Routledge, New York, 2018).

5.             Wilmott, A. C. The Politics of Photography: Visual Depictions of Syrian Refugees in U.K. Online Media. Vis. Commun. Q. 24, 67–82 (2017).

6.             Zhang, X. & Hellmueller, L. Visual framing of the European refugee crisis in Der Spiegel and CNN International: Global journalism in news photographs. Int. Commun. Gaz. 79, 483–510 (2017).

7.             Zagefka, H., Noor, M., Brown, R., de Moura, G. R. & Hopthrow, T. Donating to disaster victims: Responses to natural and humanly caused events. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 41, 353–363 (2011).

8.             Haslam, N. & Loughnan, S. Dehumanization and Infrahumanization. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 65, 399–423 (2014).

9.             Bruneau, E., Kteily, N. & Laustsen, L. The unique effects of blatant dehumanization on attitudes and behavior towards Muslim refugees during the European ‘refugee crisis’ across four countries. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 48, 645–662 (2018).

10.           Todorov, A., Mandisodza, A. N., Goren, A. & Hall, C. C. Inferences of Competence from Faces Predict Election Outcomes. Science (80-. ). 308, 1623–1626 (2005).

The ‘Body & Image in Arts & Sciences’ (BIAS) project is an innovative interdisciplinary research program that merges perspectives from cognitive neurosciences and psychology with those from the humanities and arts to study the performative power of images. It attempts to do so at the Warburg Institute, one of the world’s leading centres for the study of cultural history and the role of images in culture, inspired by Aby Warburg’s unparalleled interdisciplinary vision on the history of images. In line with the Institute’s commitment to building bridges across the boundaries between the humanities, arts and sciences, BIAS will seek to forge new and innovative synergies across the disciplines.