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Reinforcement, Flashbulb Memories, and Personality
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Photographs, videos, and other forms of media have helped aid and inform policy makers  of global atrocities against human rights. In the most extreme cases such mediums have demonstrated the cruelty of governments inflicting oppression against its own peoples or barbarically harming other indefensible groups. This paper examines the cognitive effects of photographic evidence in regards to policy makers’ decisions to advocate for or against military intervention based on the contexts of the situation. Ultimately, the research aims to determine if in a comparison of disturbing and violent images, will more severe violent content in the photo lead to advocating for greater involvement in a conflict or crisis? The model of the variables examines the gruesomeness of the images, from a photo of a minor cut to images of crime scenes and videos of war zones and hand-to-hand combat. These images then evoke an emotional response among participants and if respondents feel obligated to act or do nothing based on the severity of content. Intervening variables examined in the relationship include fight-or-flight activation, along with dopamine and oxytocin levels.

Images and other forms of photographic evidence inform global events and crises, from Napalm Girl highlighting the atrocities of the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam, to the graphic footage of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center; these images produce profound effects on the individual in their cognitive processes. The more gruesome the image, it seems, the greater the emotional response associated with it. Such exceptional “snapshots” in memory describe flashbulb memories, where highly emotional, detailed, and vivid memories are recalled. These flashbulb memories face scrutiny from scholars and psychologists as these types of memories tend to decline in consistency (Talarico & Rubin, 2003). Perhaps, the activation of the fight-or-flight system after viewing these pieces of evidence helps influence calls to action among policymakers in determining military intervention. The debate revolving around images and their impact on policy pits the likelihood of intervention against either the gruesomeness of the image itself, or if the image seems to threaten the interests of the state’s regime. In addition, the gruesome nature of the photos, whether their context involves mass murder, war crimes, or other inhumane practices, seems to incite responses from governments depending on the severity suggested. While prior research concludes some of the effects of violent war images and crafting policy, further research requires delving into the priming of different populations under varying circumstances.

Key questions reviewed in the literature address why images become so profound in memory and the consequences in decision making from evidence like this. What do these images look like in brain activity? Moreover, do these types of pictures make a call for action and if so, is it for defending state interests or upholding perceptions of morality?

Images featuring brutal context falling outside the norm particularly fuses itself to memory. In a 2003 experiment, Talarico and Rubin gathered American college students to test their memories of the 9/11 attack and a personal experience they had faced on the day of the experiment (2003). Questionnaires distributed to the participants asked questions such as “when did you first hear the news?” and “what were you doing before you heard the news?”(Talarico & Rubin, 2003, p. 455-6). Several other questions pertaining to the attacks followed this format and the respondents provided at least 2-3 descriptor words for each question regarding both the attack and a separate event in their personal lives (Talarico & Rubin, 2003). They were then instructed to rate the intensity of their emotions when recalling the memory on a scale of 1-7 (from not at all to extremely), regarding whether the emotion from the memory is as intense to them as when they first experienced it (Talarico & Rubin, 2003). Ultimately, their findings concluded the participants’ ratings of the vividness of their memory for the 9/11 tragedy, a flashbulb memory, stayed much higher than their ratings for the personal event and did not fade over time. However, when the experimenters checked the memory descriptions of the two events given by participants each time they were tested, they found the two memories lost consistency, accuracy, at the same rate over the testing period. Thus, flashbulb memories are subjectively reported as incredibly vivid, but the objective content of these memories themselves may not match this subjective feeling.

Talarico and Rubin’s study illuminates the cognitive aspect of an image’s profoundness in memory, but Lisa Brooten, Syed Irfan Ashraf, and Agawaziam Akinro’s article Blind Spots in human rights coverage: Framing violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar/Burma (2015) seems to suggest that widespread circulation in the media reinforces memories of intense emotional content. The authors focus on the relationship between emotion and political action in response to images of political violence. Using the case of Myanmar, they opine that the corporate politics of immediation in major news media sensationalizes the issue to target audiences in order to evoke political action (Brooten et al., 2015). This identification however appears as a truism because there is nothing groundbreaking about major news corporations dictating the disbursement of resources and coverage compared to less prominent news organizations. Regardless, the article does acknowledge that widespread circulation of pathos driven images indeed stokes calls to action. Comparing The New York Times’ coverage and Inter Press Service publications, the researchers discover less frequent employment of emotional rhetorical devices, such as emotionally charged language and graphic imagery in the Rohingya crisis with the Inter Press Service articles (Brooten et al., 2015).  It seems one could counter-argue that it is not necessarily the polarizing language in the reporting, but perhaps because the New York Times has more resources and funding compared to IPS they are more capable to obtain violent images and distribute the information. Citing prior studies on cognitive processes involved with emotional literature and images, the authors deduce that feelings of connectedness, needs for impact, and quick access from social media prompts activism (Brooten et al., 2015). The argument proves itself to be convincing, and takes a more behaviorist approach stressing memory reinforcement implicitly, while Talarico and Rubin highlight the cognitive processes.

Lene Hansen’s article How images make world politics: International icons and the case of Abu Ghraib conveys the importance of iconography emitting emotional qualities and political consequences in contemporary media (Hansen, 2015). Focusing primarily on the Abu Ghraib prison hooded man photograph, she delves into what makes an icon. In short, icons are “freestanding images, widely circulated, emotionally responded to, and seen as representing significant historical events” (Hansen, 2015, 287). Her discussion also observes the repurposing or appropriation of such infamous images to other related contexts, for example, the use of Picasso’s Guernica which is featured in the UN Security Council entrance and the photo of Colin Powell holding the “evidence” for Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, is frequently displayed at current anti-war demonstrations (Hansen, 2015). Icons like the ones Hansen describes in her article indicate that images are certainly utilized for critiquing policy implementation and adjusting for future policy decisions just as the image itself can be reused for demonstration purposes. The case of Abu Ghraib’s Hooded Man and the image in Vietnam of Napalm Girl struck both government officials and public audiences alike, where the public repurposed those images to reinforce the recognition of failed wartime policy and to ensure its recurrence will be met with public retribution.

While images demonstrably affect the public’s perception of a particular conflict, the decision making among policymakers trends towards inaction and indifference. Samantha Power details in her book A Problem From Hell (2002) and her article Bystanders to Genocide (2001) the unwillingness and reluctance of presidential administrations to intervene in acts of genocide. Upon the end of the Holocaust the out-pouring of the Nazi’s horrors ignited a movement of “never again” around the world, yet, despite these calls to “never again” allow genocide, the United States has failed on numerous occasions to relieve victims of mass killings after World War II (Power, 2002).  Power describes the incidents in Rwanda, critiquing the Clinton administration failed to intervene when it was needed most, and claiming in an earlier article “[Rwanda] certainly warranted directing additional U.S. intelligence assets toward the region—to snap satellite photos of large gatherings of Rwandan civilians or of mass graves” (Power, 2001). The United States government certainly had the capabilities to further investigate Rwanda, but because they did not delve deeper, they didn’t get close to the problem, and removed themselves so far from the problem that they never saw the devastation for what it was. While news agencies certainly brought copious attention to the genocide in Rwanda, the response from the White House remained absent, as Power puts it, “President Clinton certainly could have known that a genocide was underway, if he had wanted to know” (Power, 2001). This complete disregard for Rwanda was not unilateral for Clinton, the memos passed through the West Wing framed the conflict plainly and without urgency in its intelligence. Consequently, the lack of photographic evidence in these intelligence gatherings undermined the ability of the Clinton administration to assess and resolve the genocides. The United States also lacked interests and gains in the region, under realist assumptions, Rwanda obviously offered nothing to benefit the United States and its power.

Delving further from Power’s reporting and analysis, D.D. P Johnson and Dominic Tierney’s The Rubicon Theory of War ascertains the importance of individual actor’s mindsets when undergoing decision making (2011). Their research distinguishes the difference in policymakers' mindsets when presented evidence and the courses of action taken when implementing policy. Identifying the trigger for war and its timing, the work essentially bridges the gap between tension and dropping bombs. There is a certain point of no-return that consumes actors from seeing a way out of war and view it as inevitable (Johnson & Tierney, 2011). Precursory to this perceived imminent conflict, the authors describe the deliberative mindset policymakers find themselves in, where actors are more receptive to incoming information, and less overconfident in carrying out capabilities. The implemental mindset refers to when one has decided to implement their policy choice without any further consideration, which “leads to dangerous overconfidence, increasing the probability of wars against superior opponents and reckless military planning” (Johnson & Tierney, 2011, p. 40). This suggests a common characterization among government officials overestimating their abilities and underestimation of their enemy, a cognitive bias. Cognitive dissonance is particularly acute under these circumstances and inherently hardwired into our human nature (Johnson & Tierney, 2011). The argument matters when attempting to assess the causes of war on the individual level and explains why one becomes overconfident under the conditions they are under. The underlying assumption in the article is that their theory is applicable to all regime types, but one could make the counter-argument that it seems more likely to explain the war in an illiberal regime over a liberal one. The institutionalization of the process for war in liberal regimes has numerous mechanisms in place that safeguard against individual actors alone from seizing control. Explicitly, the article determines that the process for implemental mindsets occurs when war is perceived as imminent, which then feeds overconfidence and thus, risky war plans. The argument possesses strong merit because there is not much literature on the topic and it displays external validity. The argument’s basis in psychology, armor plates the theory on the individual level for assessing the evidence presented to them in instances of perceived threats.

Marcus Holmes’ article and Marck Schafer’s research explain the internal processes of the brain and their effect on decision making in international politics. Mark Schafer studies the effects of images and the attitudes toward the opposing country, attitudes on strategy, and behavior in terms of cooperative and conflictual policy choices (Schafer, 1997). His research ultimately comes down to whether images of conflict accordingly result in different attitudes and behaviors from policymakers or if policy-makers employ interest-based rationality in situations and thus the photographic evidence is useless (Schafer, 1997).  Schafer’s experiment placed participants in a policymakers’ shoes where they were tasked to look at the same images of the same context then they were given a “historic” record of two different states. The state’s relationship with the other country was either characterized to them as friendly or adversarial (2011). He concludes that “when subjects perceived the historical relationship to be conflictual, [participants] developed negative attitudes and believed that more conflictual strategies were appropriate” (Schafer, 2011, p. 824). These results prove troubling for images’ effects on the individual, and Holmes’ article on oxytocin might remedy this bias in participants. Holmes connects prosocial behaviors and stress under international crises and decision making (Holmes, 2015).

The intervening variable that promotes these prosocial behaviors links to oxytocin secretions, as oxytocin seems prompted under conditions of stress which the world of diplomacy never evades (Holmes, 2015). Given the nature of bilateral and multilateral meetings, the images in their gruesome nature presented by the foreign government can conceivably enhance feelings of empathy and greater willingness to deploy aid. The images and presence of the government representing the image connects the targeted audience a lot more closely than reading dull, routine intelligence briefings. It may also bring about accountability, showcasing to the targeted audience the horrors endured from an adversary, unintended consequences from a prior conflict, or that the ignorance of one’s suffering leaves blood on their hands.

The articles selected in this literature review connect the influence of images and other forms of photographic evidence to urge active responses in foreign policy. Cognitive and neurological concepts introduced analyze the debate on flashbulb memories’ legitimacy, the reinforcement in media sensationalism, historical relational contexts, and hormone influence. These components contribute to understanding if the relationship of more active measures in foreign policy can be attributed to image gruesomeness. Further research is needed, however, on the specific aspects of an image and if videos or photos weigh-in differently for individuals’ decision making and empathetic responses. Additionally, the parsimonious nature of the United States’ willingness to intervene might be associated with the indifference and avoidant defense mechanisms of policymakers. Therefore, images indicate significance in crisis management and decision-making.

Bradley Wilding is a senior studying government and psychology at the College of William & Mary. His is an undergraduate research assistant for the Political Psychology in International Relations lab. Mr. Wilding’s interests include Arctic national security, the relationship between social neuroscience and diplomacy, along with human rights law. 



Brooten, Lisa. "Blind spots in human rights coverage: Framing violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar/Burma." Popular Communication 13, no. 2 (2015): 132-144.

Hansen, Lene. “How Images Make World Politics: International Icons and the Case of Abu Ghraib.” Review of International Studies 41, no. 2 (2015): 263–88. doi:10.1017/S0260210514000199.

Holmes, Marcus. "Fight-or-Flight or Tend-and-Befriend? Stress and the Political Psychology of Crisis Diplomacy." The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 10, no. 1 (2015): 15-21.

Johnson, Dominic DP, and Dominic Tierney. "The Rubicon theory of war: how the path to conflict reaches the point of no return." International Security 36, no. 1 (2011): 7-40.

Power, Samantha J. “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Basic Books. (2002). Print.

Power, Samantha J. “Bystanders to Genocide” The Atlantic. (2001). https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571/

Schafer, Mark. "Images and policy preferences." Political Psychology 18, no. 4 (1997): 813-829.

Talarico, Jennifer M., and David C. Rubin. "Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories." Psychological science 14, no. 5 (2003): 455-461.

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