The psychological persuasiveness of Aylan Kurdi’s tragic story

4 min. read | Last updated: December 12th, 2017

The world didn’t make much sense to me as a young boy.

I remember sitting in my grandparents’ backyard on Fraser Street in Vancouver one summer day. I was probably seven or eight years old. Wondering why people were asking others for money to support research for cancer, or kidney disease, or tapeworms, or whatever.

It didn’t make sense.

If a thousand people become ill and die from Disease A and ten thousand are affected by Disease B, shouldn’t the money and effort distribution be based on some sort of a weighted calculation? Shouldn’t Disease B obviously get more research effort?

Why should people be spending all the wasted time and resources creating fundraising campaigns, printing brochures, and canvassing for money?

Stories drive action

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

– Joseph Stalin, murderer of 43 million people

Recently, the world has been moved to action during the Syrian crisis, not by the thousands of people driven from their homes, killed, and injured, but by the picture of one three-year-old boy washed up dead on a beach.

Aylan Kurdi’s story is tragic.

His father, Abdullah Kurdi, hoping to find a better life, decided to take his wife and two children on a midnight dinghy ride from Turkey to Greece. The waves overpowered the rubber boat and they were tossed into the sea a mile offshore. Tragically, he had only brought a lifejacket for himself.

Aylan Kurdi had no chance. He didn’t make the decision to leave Turkey that night. He didn’t decide not to have a life jacket. He didn’t have any chance of battling the waves and swimming back to shore. He was a three-year-old boy who should have had someone protecting him.

Yes, it is tragic. If your heart isn’t touched by his story, there’s something wrong with you. But there were many others taking the same trip that night.

Thousands of Syrians and others have been pushing across borders toward the west. Their tragedies and poor situations haven’t motivated you. The stats and photos of the masses haven’t opened the western countries’ doors. It took one photo of a three-year-old.

Why has his story had such an outsized motivational effect on the world? Why didn’t the world act with such vigour before it was published?

A study by Paul Slovic reveals the answer. He shows that “most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are ‘one of many’ in a much greater problem.”

As Slovic said in an interview, “the first life lost is very precious, but we don’t react very much to the difference between 88 deaths and 87 deaths. You don’t feel worse about 88 than you do about 87.”

Other studies have further examined how our brains process information about small- and large-scale tragedies. Psychologist Elizabeth Dunn found that while people thought they would feel differently about hearing that 5 people versus 10,000 people had died in a forest fire, they felt just as bad in either case. In a related experiment, Dunn found that visual cues helped people process information about tragedy. When people saw images of the dead, they were better able to understand the scale of how many people were affected.

Slovic found that people are actually more affected by smaller numbers, and are more likely to donate to a cause that affects one person than one that affects many people.

Humans aren’t rational

What does this mean for marketers? Though it may seem crass to use a tragedy as a marketing lesson, and I hesitated even posting this article for that reason, all experiences can be instructive. I am in no way minimizing the tragedy of Aylan’s demise, or commenting on the current Syrian refugee situation. But, what can we learn?

We can be reminded that people are irrational, and they’re driven by stories of individuals. Your prospects will respond to a relatable story much more than to facts and figures about your products.

We’ve found, for example, the long-copy first-person story can be an effective approach for landing page optimization. It appeals to this human bias toward empathy for an individual over the masses, as well as the inherent appeal of stories.

Landing page optimization example

Here’s an A/B test with an example of how stories can move action.

Hypothesis: On a landing page selling colon cleanse programs, we hypothesized that a personal story from an individual would motivate prospective consumers more than factual presentation of the product.

Test: We tested several variations against the control page, including one that focused on an individual’s story. Here are two of them:

Colon cleanse landing page A/B test

(Note: all variations followed the graphic standards of the client’s website and control page at the time of this experiment.)

We found Variation B with the individual story approach lifted sales by 8.6% over Variation A at 95% statistical significance.

Now, there were clearly a lot of variable changed here, which were necessary to create these entirely different approaches. This is what we call a ‘variable cluster’ test where many variables are changed within each variation.

This isn’t the only example of similar findings. In other examples, WiderFunnel has seen conversion rate lifts by adding videos of personal stories from customers and company founders.

  • In one case, for a consumer medical product company, adding a video next to a course signup lifted registrations by 40%.
  • In another example, an experiment variation on a social media landing page that included a video interview of the company’s popular founder lifted e-commerce sales by 15%.
  • An e-commerce landing page had a 13.7% sales lift by adding a collage of pictures pulled from fans’ Facebook pages.

Make your marketing personal to drive results

Do personal stories drive your prospects to act? You should test that! Try adding more personal details and individual stories to your landing pages and sales copy.

About WiderFunnel
WiderFunnel creates profitable ‘A-ha!’ moments for clients. Our team of optimization experts works together with a singular focus: conversion optimization of our client’s customer touchpoints through insightful A/B testing. We don’t just consult and give advice — we test every recommendation to prove its value and gain tested insights. Contact us to learn more.


Chris Goward

Founder & CEO

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