Refugee crisis: Why one boy’s tragedy created a wave of empathy

It took the story of a drowned child to end apathy to mass refugee deaths on Europe’s shores. It doesn’t have to be this way, says morality researcher Daryl Cameron

Stalin is famously supposed to have said that “one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic”. Identifiable victims seem to trigger empathy and compassion, but many victims seem like cold numbers that do not tug at our heartstrings.

Psychological research bears this out: in studies, people tend to feel more empathy and compassion for, and donate more money to, single victims than groups of victims.

This month, after a summer marked by a mixture of apathy and hostility towards refugees despite repeated mass drownings in the Mediterranean, the public mood shifted. The world was brought to tears by an image of a Syrian boy who had perished in an attempt to escape persecution by crossing the sea from Turkey to Europe.