Cultivating empathy with comics

We produce graphic essays, or comics, that help educate and cultivate empathy. We think they offer something a little different to the typical charity media mix.

We all live in a state of profound isolation. No other human being can ever know what it’s like to be you from the inside. And no amount of reaching out to others can ever make them feel exactly what you feel. All media of communication are a by-product of our sad inability to communicate directly from mind to mind. Sad, of course, because nearly all problems in human history stem from that inability. Each medium…serves as a bridge between minds. Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more senses back into thoughts.” Scott McCloud.

Why Empathy?

Many charities, like the NSPCC, are looking to change the way they communicate. They are trying to emphasise positive messages over those that shock.

We will write more about this subject in a forthcoming article, but in short, we believe that communications are most effective when they are designed to cultivate empathy.

Of course shock tactics or emotive coercion can be effective for fundraising in the short term. The problem is the long term damage. They cause feelings of distress in those who observe them. While this can lead to donations, they are motivated by the donor’s desire to remove that distress and to wash their hands of the problem. It’s a transaction, and typically it’s a one off – there’s no further engagement with the issues. More often shock tactics result in apathy. They reinforce the idea that the world’s a bad place, and there’s little anyone can do about it. Worse, in rare cases, they can even cause anger at the very people that campaigns are designed to support. They also contribute to a sense of othering – widening a gulf between those needing help and those being asked to help –  which can perpetuate the underlying problems.

In contrast, empathy stimulates longer-term engagement. It underpins sustainable changes in behaviour. It encourages real advocacy. Empathy enriches all participants in the conversation. It encourages action over aversion, fosters inclusion rather than isolation, and dissolves distinctions between donors and beneficiaries.

How does empathy work?

Saleh Hijazi

If you want to be able to cultivate empathy, you need to understand how empathy works. This is a developing science with many unanswered questions, but there is a consensus that empathy is based on two separate neurological systems, each taking place in a different part of the brain:

– Emotional (or affective) empathy is the capacity to share the feelings of another person in response to observing those feelings. It tends to be a quick and visceral experience.

– Cognitive empathy is the deliberate and conscious process of adopting another person’s point of view. It is much slower and more considered.

These two pathways are integrated in the prefrontal cortex to form the overall empathic response.

Thus empathy is not merely a passive reaction to emotional cues. It does not happen automatically,  but is subject to context and appraisal.

The response is affected by, among other factors, the relationship between the observer and the person being observed, their relative vulnerability or need, and whether the observed person’s feelings are considered justified.

In particular, many experiments show that people are more likely to empathise with those who they considered to be similar to themselves. This can be a real obstacle when it comes to creating empathy for humanitarian purposes.


For a variety of reasons storytelling has become one of the biggest trends in marketing over recent years. Of particular relevance to the charity sector is the ability of stories to overcome some of the biases that get in the way of empathy.

Numerous ingenious experiments demonstrate that readers of narratives are drawn to protagonists and adopt both their spatial and emotional perspectives. They identify in some way with the hero of the story. This can occur even with protagonists who are of different age, gender, class, religion, race etc.

Stories that describe familiar scenes and concerns, representing universal human experience, can further transcend these differences. Reading about or watching a person miss a family member, enjoy playing with a pet or craving a tasty meal can elicit shared feelings that help deflect some of the cultural biases that interfere with empathy.

Comics cultivate empathy
Karrie Fransman, Teenage Refugee

A narrative can also provide a platform to explain and justify the feelings of a protagonist, and render them less obscure or threatening to those who would otherwise be unable to understand them.

One experiment asked people to read one of two versions of an article that described healthcare-related dilemmas for either immigrants, prisoners or the elderly. The article written in the form of a story produced more compassion towards the individuals concerned, more favourable attitudes towards their group, more positive intended actions, and a greater desire to seek further information.

Comics cultivate empathy

Comics can provide ‘fast tracks’ to empathy (Susanne Keen’s term). They can stimulate empathy above and beyond that elicited by other storytelling techniques.

1. Readers are more likely to identify with protagonists in comics

If we see a photograph of a person, even before our thoughts become conscious, they’re preloaded with judgements. Without even knowing that we’re doing so, even the most open-minded among us make dozens of calculations about age, gender, demeanour and social status. This process categorises people, applies our prior experiences and helps us determine how we should interact with those we meet.

Similarly, if we read a description of a person in a novel or an article, each adjective or label that is applied to them causes another cascade of barely-conscious thoughts. Try it for yourself. What comes to mind when you read the word ‘migrant’? What do they look like? What do they do? Are they worthy of help? Do they need help?

Storytelling can help overcome these prejudices by transcending difference and evoking shared experience, helping us to identify with protagonists even if they share few similarities with ourselves. Comics can take this even further.

Comics cultivate empathy by removing bias
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

Cartoon faces are still immediately recognisable as faces. However the more ‘cartoony’ a face, the more people it seems to describe and the less different it seems from ourselves.

Scott McCloud even goes so far as to suggest that in a realistic picture of a face you see an other, but in a cartoon face you see yourself. And with the safety mask of the iconic face of a cartoon protagonist, the more confidently a reader transports themselves into realistic, even photographic, visual worlds that are vastly different from their own.

The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled…an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon we become it”. Scott McCloud

2. Comics require greater reader involvement than other media

Have you ever found yourself reading a book, an article or a social media feed and realising with a jolt that you can’t remember anything you’ve just read?

It can be easy to slip into a passive absent-minded reading where you don’t really take anything in. That doesn’t happen with comics. They require more active engagement. As you alternate between reading text and looking at pictures your concentration is constantly reawakened.

Reading a comic is a participatory event, an act of co-creation. The reader is required to imagine what has happened between scenes. While comic art styles vary enormously they typically involve an iconic language in which, as we’ve seen, a face can be rendered by just a few lines. This stylistic shorthand also requires participation from the reader, because at every stage the images have to be interpreted for meaning to be extracted. This contrasts with film where typically the heavy-lifting is already done for the viewer.

Comics cultivate empathy by uniting words and images
Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

A participatory dance, an act of the imagination, in which the reader animates and transforms the static into the kinetic and brings it to life”. Nick Sousanis

3. As a result, reading comics involves more of your brain

The text in a comic stimulates those parts of the brain associated with verbal understanding, the ability to isolate constituent elements, and to think in a linear fashion.

The images stimulate those parts associated with visual understanding, the ability to comprehend the whole, and to simultaneously hold multiple concepts.

While the parallels aren’t precise or mutually exclusive these two effects can be thought to mirror the two components of an empathic response, with the visual influencing emotional empathy and the textual influencing cognitive empathy.

More research is required to conclusively demonstrate this link. Nonetheless it is clear that simplified line drawings of facial expressions influence a reader’s feelings before they read accompanying text, and can have a significant impact on how that text is received.

Comics cultivate empathy with non-linear communication
Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

4. Comics give context elegantly

Exposition is always tricky in text or film narratives. Characters lose authenticity when they awkwardly explain things to each other for the audience’s benefit. Long clumsy asides interrupt the linear flow of a text.

In contrast, the form of graphic essays allows maps, data visualisation or background material to be neatly integrated.

This is not only a stylistic benefit. It also provides the context necessary to inform cognitive empathy, and to render the story of one relevant to many.

5. Comics communicate complexity

While comics can tell stories simply and clearly, they also have the capacity to retain complexity when required.

It is true that information overload encourages simplicity and there is a trend towards polarised opinion. However, at the same time, as audiences become more sophisticated consumers of media they become more receptive to nuance and subtlety.

[There is] considerable appetite for…more complex stories of how change and progress happens”. IPPR and the Overseas Development Institute.

Repeatedly showing a problem and asking for money has diminishing returns. If the problem remains, it starts to seem that the work is not doing any good and the donations are being wasted. Perhaps the problem is intractable and can be written off as just an example of the way the world is. This leads to apathy and even aversion. Instead, education about the real complexities involved in solving problems and description of the steps necessary to improve the situation can help stimulate cognitive empathy. This can help overcome the biases that obstruct action.

Interweaving multiple strands of thought creates common ground. A richly dimensional tapestry from which to confront and take differences into account, and allow the complex to remain complex.” Nick Sousanis

Comics cultivate empathy with subtlety
Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

Cultivating empathy with comics

Comics cultivate empathy. Put simply, text appeals to reason and images appeal to the emotions, so they are a storytelling medium that is well suited to stimulating both an emotional and a cognitive empathic response. But there is more to it than that. The combination is more potent than either image or text can be alone. At the same time, comics can help pull down some of the greatest barriers to empathy. They can facilitate real identification with protagonists over and above that found with other media. They can reduce perceptions of difference, helping to remove prejudices and unconscious biases. They can communicate clearly without discarding complexity. They encourage investment in the story. They help to make a difference.

Further reading

Numerous sources have influenced this article. Of particular importance are:

Christine Cox et al, The Balance Between Feeling and Knowing, 2012

Mary-Catherine Harrison, How Narrative Relationships Overcome Empathic Bias, 2011

Suzanne Keen, Fast Tracks to Narrative Empathy, 2011

Suzanne Keen, Life Writing and the Empathetic Circle, 2015

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, 1993

Oliver et al, The Effect of Narrative News Format on Empathy for Stigmatized Groups, 2012.

Shamay-Tsooray et al, The Neural Bases for Empathy, 2011

Nick Sousanis, Unflattening, 2015

Frédérique de Vignement & Tania Singer, The Empathic Brain: How, When and Why?, 2006