In the previous posts concerning the elicitation of empathic responses on the HONY blog in relation to the refugee series, I have highlighted the differences between the HONY blog and more general news outlets, as well as the ability of the blog to sidestep the problems in photojournalism. I have also touched upon the possibility that the readers’ continuous empathic engagement with the refugee series, without thereby succumbing to empathy fatigue, might be, at least minimally, attributable to the nature of the sadness that the readers experience upon being exposed to the plight of others. For the final post of this four-part post series, I would like to zoom in on the narrative feature of the HONY blog posts—the photo captions—and explore the possibility of it playing a role in evoking empathic responses in readers.
An essential feature of the HONY blog are the photo captions, which represent an excerpt of a conversation between the subject of the photograph and the photographer. The captions vary in length, from those with short remarks to the extensive and very detailed. Yet the readers’ engagement and expressions of empathy don’t seem to differ systematically between the two.
The story above evokes a social situation that invites the reader to adopt the perspective of the individual and vicariously experience his emotions. But how does this come about? From what we know so far, the experience of empathy comprises a cognitive component and an emotional component. The former involves the ability to mentalise or attribute thoughts and beliefs to the self and others (the so-called “Theory of Mind”; TOM), while the latter involves emotional contagion. At the level of the brain, researchers have found that the areas involved in TOM (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction) and those involved in emotional contagion (the amygdala, thalamus, and orbitofrontal cortex) are activated when a person reads stories that describe real-life emotional episodes, such as the above, hinting at a possible link between empathy and literary reading.
But it seems to me that there’s something even more unique about the snippets of conversation Stanton attaches to the photos. Some of the most upvoted replies to the above blog post included “I’m desperately searching the picture for some clue that his son and wife are with him now”, hinting at the readers’ intense empathic involvement in the subject’s story and their desire for closure. I suspect another literary-relevant mechanism responsible for these responses is at play here, and that is suspense.
Suspense is a complex affective state. It is evoked by events of emotional significance that produce conflict, uncertainty, and a yearning for closure evident in continuous effort to predict how the events will unfold. Suspense is a critical component in various forms of narrative as it engages the reader’s ability to empathise with the protagonist and motivates him to predict what will happen next. In fact, research suggested that feelings of suspense in response to narratives have been associated with largely the same areas involved in empathic processes and event prediction, the latter being a psychological mechanism that seeks to relieve and minimise the level of tension and uncertainty.
In light of the above, I suppose the ability of the HONY blog to continuously engage readers and elicit empathic responses towards the refugee series partially revolves around two strategies. The first pertains to the nature of the photo captions: they enable the reader to become quickly immersed in the story in such a way that they immediately adopt the subject’s perspective and see the world through their eyes. The second pertains to the nature of the snippets of conversation Stanton chooses to attach to the photos; namely, the kinds that build suspense in the reader and subsequently acts as a “hook” that engages the reader’s cognition and emotions. If suspense acts as some kind of “glue” that keeps readers engaged in the HONY blog on a daily basis, the question that is yet to be answered is why suspense appeals to us. In abstract terms, uncertainty is not a pleasant experience, yet we are continuously drawn to it in perhaps the same way recognised by Oscar Wilde in his play The Importance of Being Earnest: “This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” One reason might be that we rarely experience suspense in our own lives without the accompanying feelings of anxiety that take away the pleasure of the thrill. If this is true, then it might be the case that the HONY blog is, once again, constructively—though rather unsuspectingly—exploiting its readers’ psychological needs for the purpose of orienting their attention towards, and expanding their awareness of, important issues concerning fellow human beings.
There is reason to believe, then, that empathy in the online world is triggered by various subtle elements that deserve closer exploration. As previously noted, despite being a natural psychological mechanism, the continuous elicitation of empathy through the media is tricky. For this reason, throughout this four-part post series, I have drawn on the HONY blog as a model that happens to persistently engage its readers’ empathic responses and, in doing so, have highlighted several subtle dynamics that I suspect collectively play important roles in this process.