Does the child on the beach help us see the bigger picture?


After the heart breaking photo of Aylan Kurdi shook us out of our urban trance something started happening. Common people started to see the bigger picture (in scientific terms: a normative goal frame).

It is early days, but so far people in the UK changed the mind of their government and  13,000+ people (!) in the Netherlands volunteered to open their houses and some are already working on adding a shower to their attics to be able to welcome refugees. What is fascinating is that this resembles a similar move early in the so-called Dutch golden century (from 1588 – 1702) when the Netherlands opened their houses for refugees (in a couple of years Amsterdam’s population was more than quadrupled!).

Side note: The following century of prosperity would have not been possible without the refugees.

Why do so many people see the bigger picture after a particularly heartbreaking photo? 

Before this pivotal moment we knew some or most of the facts – we all knew people were/are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea every day – but we were not able to rise above our own ‘lowlier’ individual goals and were too confused (no vision), too frustrated (no resources to act), and perhaps felt frozen (no idea what we could do).

Individual goal frames are usually gain goals and hedonic goals. The former is about the strong individual desire to improve (or preserve) one’s resources, the latter about the even stronger desire to improve (or preserve) the way one feels right now. The third goal is collective; it is the normative goal, which is the desire to act in an exemplary fashion in terms of what is good for the collective. In terms of inherent strength the normative goal (we-frame) is the weakest as it gets rather easily pushed into the background by the I-frame goals.

Goal framing theory argues that we have all three of these goals/desires working or ‘fighting’ within us and that only one can be the focal goal (the goal frame) while the others remain in the background. Much to the frustration of most, governments have not been able to move (people) into a normative goal frame regarding refugees. Instead what many populist political parties tapped into are the i-frame goals of people arguing that refugees are out to plunder your resources and generally make you worse off. Until a couple of days ago the i-frames were dominating the refugee debate, but the photo lifted many of us into a normative goal frame (a vision) which seems to say: Refugees are welcome here in my country, in my city, in my home and we will help them! Our gain goals and hedonic goals are (temporarily) moved to the background and what we see developing is a so-called ‘joint (production) motivation’ which gives us drive: Together we are going to take care of this!

In order to deliver on huge challenges as these we need:

  1. Vision – no vision leads to confusion
  2. Drive – no drive leads to apathy
  3. Resources – no resources leads to frustration
  4. Capabilities – no capabilities leads to anxiety
  5. Strategy – no strategy leads to being frozen

We now have (1) vision, we have (2) drive, and we have increasing (3) resources to take on the challenge.

A note about resources: resources are necessary – we need houses for refugees for example – but governments should not fall into the trap of providing monetary compensation for volunteers as this is a proven way to move people back into their gain goals (and stop providing housing altogether!). There are (4) capabilities (how we apply the resources) available, but there is a need for (quick) training and last but not least we need (5) strategy to make sure everything works together to solve the challenge.

The impact of the photo is that it created vision, and vision created drive (joint motivation) and the other factors are in the process of coming together… Lets make sure we keep our eyes on the bigger picture!





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