The Power of An Identifiable Victim and An Identifiable Villain

Many people were deeply effected by the killing of Cecil the Lion by American dentist Walter Palmer outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.  The incident prompted an outcry and outpouring on social media, and according to Google trends, “Cecil” even outstripped “Kardashian” as a search term for four days.  Jimmy Kimmel got choked up about it on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”, and his appeal alone has raised $780,000 as of August 4th. Kimmel and celebrities like Ricky Gervais poured scorn on Palmer, and millions unleashed their anger through social media. The hunter became the hunted, with some calling for Palmer’s head (in a non-metaphorical sense), and many others demanding he be prosecuted.  As a result,  he deserted his Minnesota dental practice, and when he surfaced last week in Florida he had employed the services of armed guards.  An online partition on led US airlines to change their policy on shipping big game killed by trophy hunters.

Yet, unfortunately, Cecil’s fate is not as exceptional as the social and traditional media storm it created.  Hundreds of thousands — if not millions  — of animals that are considered endangered are killed illegally every year.  According to USAID “an estimated number of 122,000 African elephants were slaughtered between 2010 and 2012 for their ivory, and in 2014 more than 1,200 rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa alone”.  Yet seldom do any of these killings make it to the social media feeds of the population at large, or get anywhere near the front page of the newspapers or the evening news.

So what is different about Cecil?  While a number of factors made a difference, two stand out for me.  The first is a phenomenon called the “Identifiable Victim Effect”.  A couple of years ago I interviewed Dan Ariely (see the interview here), a notable Behavioral Economist and author of the best-selling book Predictably Irrational and he talked about how this works

The identifiable victim effect is the idea that you care about one little kid much more than you care about a million kids. The caring doesn’t go up in relation to the number of victims… it actually goes down. This is the one thing Mother Theresa and Joseph Stalin agreed on.  Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy. A billion is a statistic.” Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the masses, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Cecil literally had the markings of an identifiable victim — his black mane was a marking that made him unique and identifiable. But probably more important is that he had been given a name — the most simple and recordable identifier we humans use everyday.  Names allow us to not just to attach an identity to someone, but to easily spread that identity.   Alex Genevsky, a researcher at Stanford University who has explored the Identifiable Victim Effect at a behavioral and neural level, gave me the example of the affection that swelled amongst New Yorkers for the Red-tailed Hawk that took up residence on Fifth Avenue and was dubbed Pale Male.

An identifiable victim creates deep empathy and, as Ariely suggests, drives people to act. But what happens when the perpetrator is also identifiable?   Carnegie Mellon’s George Loewenstein (a very influential thinker in judgement and decision-making studies) and Wharton’s Deborah Small have done a lot of research on the identifiable victim effect.  And they have also looked at how people react to an identifiable perpetrator.  Their research suggests that when people have the opportunity to fine perpetrators — even if it involves some cost to themselves — they will be more punitive to an identifiable perpetrator than they will too an equally guilty non-identifiable one.

Outed by data trails and the crowd sourcing effect of social media,  Palmer moved from an anonymous trophy hunter to a dentist with a name, addresses and a face that was plastered all over the internet, the press and TV.

A lion killed illegally by a hunter or poacher doesn’t get much interest.  But give the lion a name and the killer an identity and it makes us instinctively feel sadder for the victim and angrier at the villain.  That amplified sadness over the death of Cecil and anger at Walter Palmer may leads to some good though, if it puts illegal wildlife trade higher on the agendas of governments, the media and individuals.  Stalin and Mother Teresa would agree that it might just do that.