Researchers show how media image choices dehumanise refugees

Monday 17 May 2021
 Images of large groups                                                               Images of individuals/smaller groups
*Images depicted here are all illustrative examples of the visual framing (ie were not presented in the studies)
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Yes, pictures of crowds of refugees do have a strong emotional effect on viewers. But it’s largely a negative one, according to researchers on the Body and Image in Arts and Sciences (BIAS) project at the Warburg Institute, part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

The research has strong implications for the imagery used in debates on sensitive issues like immigration. The power of images of ‘identifiable’ victims is overall positive. It was the photograph of the drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015, that prompted international responses, the EU’s change of policy on refugees and a ten-fold increase in donations to the Swedish Red Cross.

However, media pictures of identifiable victims are relatively rare. In the majority refugees are typically depicted as large faceless masses, in medium-to-long distance camera shots. Given that the majority of images shown in the media are not of identifiable victims, what are the consequences of exposing audiences to images of large groups? This question, addressed by the BIAS team, is timely and crucial for societal and scientific reasons.

‘In mainstream media, audiences are predominantly exposed to visual framings of large, unidentifiable groups. Exposure to images of large groups may either render audiences numb or simply be ineffective, as past research suggests, or instead could have adverse effects on people’s attitudes and behaviour, as our studies suggest,’ Professor Manos Tsakiris from Royal Holloway, University of London, who led the BIAS project, says.

Their research shows that when people are shown images of large groups, as opposed to images of identifiable individuals, viewers are more likely to dehumanise refuges, less likely to support pro-refugee policies and more likely to support anti-refugee policies and authoritarian leaders.

Some of these consequences were more pronounced when the images depicted large groups of refugees in the sea, a theme that dominated the coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis. It seems that in a way similar to the linguistic portrayal of refugees using metaphors of waves, tides and floods, such images also reinforce a recurring stereotype of refugees as potentially threatening, uncontrollable agents.

Images often elicit strong emotions, and the BIAS team also looked at the role of emotions in changing attitudes and behaviour. Interestingly, it was not the emotions that viewers attributed to the depicted refugees that drove the observed political consequences. Instead, the important factor seemed to be the intensity of specific emotions that the viewers themselves experienced, such as reduced pity, when looking at images of large groups.

The findings come from ten studies involving approximately 4,000 European citizens to investigate what happens when people are shown images of refugees depicted in large anonymous groups, as opposed to small groups or individuals. The researchers brought together insights from social psychology, social sciences and the humanities to test a range of hypotheses using methods from social and political psychology.

The debates about representations in discussions about immigration are longstanding and often heated. The report authors conclude: “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 the functioning of our political systems.”

The paper, When the lens is too wide: the political consequences of the visual dehumanization of refugees, co-authored by Ruben Azevedo, Sophie De Beukelaer, Isla Jones, Lou Safra and Manos Tsakiris, is published on Monday 17 May in the Nature Humanities & Social Sciences Communications journal.

On publication, the article will go live here.


For further information, please contact, Media Communications Manager, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Contact details of lead author: Professor Manos Tsakiris ( | Twitter: @manos_tsakiris

Notes for Editors

  1. The Warburg Institute is one of the world’s leading centres for studying the interaction of ideas, images and society. It is dedicated to the survival and transmission of culture across time and space, with a special emphasis on the afterlife of antiquity. Its open-stack Library, Photographic Collection and Archive serve as an engine for interdisciplinary research, postgraduate teaching and a prestigious events and publication programme. Find out more at Twitter: @Warburg_News
  2. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled resources, facilities and academic opportunities across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. Last year SAS welcomed 892 research fellows and associates, held 1,903 events highlighting the latest research in the humanities, received 25.9 million online visits to its research resources and platforms, and hosted 173,493 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads Being Human, the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews
  3. About Royal Holloway, University of London –
    Royal Holloway, University of London, is ranked in the top 25 universities in the UK. Through world class research that expands minds and changes lives, the dedication of our teachers and the feel of the Royal Holloway experience, ours is a community that inspires individuals to succeed academically, socially and personally.
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