Chapter 4: Use Emotion with Intention

Photo from NASA.

By Annie Neimand, Ph.D., Ann Christiano, and Lauren Parater

Research tells us that how we feel about an issue drives how we think about it. We form judgements based on the emotions we experience. When something makes us feel bad, we will find a reason to justify why it is wrong or avoid it. If something makes us feel good, we will justify why it is right (Graham et al., 2013; Haidt, 2012; Kahneman and Egan 2011; Howell and Shepherd, 2012).

Organizations communicating on behalf of refugees often tell sad stories of loss to help their audience imagine what it is like to be in their shoes. However, these stories rely on negative emotions people do not want to experience. And telling these stories over and over again can create story fatigue. Science tells us that there is a full range of emotions we can use to engage our audience in specific actions necessary to achieve strategic goals.

For example, research suggests people are more likely to share content if they experience high arousal (the activation of the autonomic nervous system) emotions. These emotions include disgust, anxiety and amusement. People are less likely to share content if they experience low arousal emotions, such as sadness and contentment (Berger, 2011).

Anger lowers our ability to take the perspectives of others, and we are more likely to form quick, emotionally-driven decisions rooted in stereotypes. Anger, however, is a powerful emotion for mobilizing people against a common offender or enemy (Bodenhausen et al, 1993; Yip, 2018).

Neuroscientist Abigail Marsh (2019) suggests that when we see others in fear, it activates the part of the human brain that evolved to protect children. “Just as infants elicit care by signaling distress, the cues that adults use to signal distress elicit care more effectively when they evoke properties of infants. Expressions of fear reliably elicit care for this reason. Fearful vocalizations, body postures, and facial expressions not only signal acute and salient distress, but also all carry characteristics that resemble features of infants,” reported Marsh. When people express fear, their face looks most similar to an infant’s round eyes, round cheeks and raised eyebrows. As a result, we are more likely to try to help them. Research also suggests that when we personally experience fear from a perceived threat, we either freeze, flee or fight.

The international community will often try to communicate to pull on people’s heartstrings, believing negative emotions will incite more empathy. However, research suggests that positive emotions are just as powerful in inspiring action.

When people feel awe, the overwhelming positive feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than the self, we are more likely to be altruistic, self-reflective and open-minded and generous (Piff et al. 2015, Rudd et al. 2012).

Humor, when used correctly, can capture the attention of an audience, and drive belief and behavior change toward an issue. Recent research on engaging ambivalent audiences on issues facing Syrian refugees found that satire, as compared to news reporting, had higher entertainment value, lowered message discounting and increased support for refugees (Feldman and Borum Chattoo, 2018).

In another study, the same researchers found that “Stand Up Planet,” a comedic documentary about global development starring The Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj, increased viewers’ understanding and willingness to act, as compared to those who watched the somber documentary on global development. The researchers argued this is because comedy is relatable, uses positive emotions and transports the viewer into the story (Borum Chattoo and Feldman 2017). Experts in the science of comedy Peter McGraw, Lawrence Williams and Caleb Warren (2009) write, “Humor is an important psychological response that facilitates coping, social coordination, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Borum Chattoo and Feldman recommend that organizations partner with comedians and pop culture platforms (like YouTube, Netflix, Comedy festival, screen writers) to be effective, rather than relying on those in the organization to be funny. Organizations might host screenings of comedic documentaries followed by a discussion with the community affected and issue experts to bring comedy into an organization. In order to gain the benefits of comedy, content has to truly be funny.

Pride has been found to be effective in motivating people to engage in altruistic behavior (Boezeman and Ellemers 2007). In her research, Michie (2009) writes that “pride motivates prosocial behavior in one of two ways. First, experiencing pride motivates people to act in ways that improve their image of self in the eyes of others. Second, pride motivates people to prosocial actions in order to feel better about themselves.”

You might also tell stories that tap into universal values and emotions, like love for children, wanting to protect your family, and romantic love. Karin Wahl-Jorgenson, a media scholar at Cardiff University, told us that the story of Aylan Kurdi went viral because his story tapped into the universal value of love and protection of children. When we saw his image, lifeless on the beach, we imagined a child we love. The image went viral and increased Google searches for the Syrian civil war to rates higher than they had ever been, as well as increased donations to the Red Cross (Slovic et al. 2017).

In her essay How to Make a Life, American poet Elizabeth Alexander tells the story of life married to a man whose family were at one time refugees and what that has meant for them as they built a life together. She brings the reader in through a shared emotional understanding of romantic love. When reading her piece, we imagine someone we love and what it would feel like to marry and build a life with someone whose world has been shaped by this experience. Throughout the story, she breaks dominant narratives and assumptions about refugees common in news media that may be held by the reader. Their story is a counter-narrative and unique way to bring audiences in and help them care about the experiences and needs of refugees through romantic love.

When we describe climate change and disasters as risk multipliers interconnected with social, economic, political and individual factors, it is important that we are intentional with the emotions that we elicit. Depending on what you are trying to achieve, your communication will require you to design for different emotions.

Do you need the audience to take the perspective of others? Use awe or love, followed by a sense of pride in being able to take action. Do you need to build support against a particular policy? Try using anger to frame the policy as a common enemy against the people. While certainly these emotions won’t work the same way every time, whenever we communicate we are inevitably evoking emotion. Strategic communication requires that we do so with intention.

This special publication is part of a partnership between the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida Center for Public Interest Communications. In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, this partnership aims to connect those working in the humanitarian sector with applicable insights from behavioral, cognitive and social science to make a lasting difference on the issues that matter most.

Thank you to Alex Randall, Erica Bower and Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat for their time and insight for this project.

This special report shares how we can apply behavioural, cognitive and social science to build understanding and support for complex issues. We focused on climate change displacement as it is one of the critical and most complex areas of work facing the humanitarian sector — and the entire global community. The special report is divided into five chapters:

Introduction: Communicating the Complexity of Displacement in a Changing Climate

Chapter One: Make Room for the Most Affected

Chapter Two: Use Visual Language

Chapter Three: Tell Stories

Chapter Four: Use Emotion with Intention

Chapter Five: Step Into the World of Your Community


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The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

UNHCR Innovation Service

Written by

UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

The Arc

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

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