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What Stifles Support for Refugees?

Recent psychological research suggests a new way to frame the ongoing situation in Syria is to get certain groups of Americans to support opening our borders.
Syrian refugees take part in a demonstration at the Zaatari refugee  camp, near the border with Syria. (Photo: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian refugees take part in a demonstration at the Zaatari refugee camp, near the border with Syria. (Photo: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images)

American policy debates, whether on abortion, gun control, or the migration of war-torn refugees, are marked by utter disbelief at the other side’s lack of compassion. Yet feeling compassion is a complicated process. For those attempting to convince others to open our borders, it’s worth digging deeper—beyond politics—into why the existence of Syrian refugees might produce a cocktail of psychological processes that lead to an apparent absence of compassion.

One potential answer comes from a new study by the University of Massachusetts–Amherst’s Bernhard Leidner on the surprising consequences of using the word genocide. Leidner’s study focuses on people who strongly identify with their group—“high-identifiers”—such as Americans who prize their American identity. High-identifiers tend to express more concern for the security and stability of their own group, and they exhibit strong in-group favoritism; relative to low-identifiers, high-identifiers value the lives of those in their group more than the lives of others. As a result, high-identifiers are more likely to support an intervention when their group’s safety and security is at risk, or when helping is clearly in the self-interest of the group.

Leidner proposed that high-identifiers are unlikely to be swayed by moral appeals because making morality the chief concern signals that there is no direct threat to the security of the group. Helping refugees will make the world a better place, but this kind of abstract welfare concern means that Americans must not be at risk. Leidner also proposed that high-identifiers are less likely to support intervening in intra-regional conflicts, as these conflicts are unlikely to pose a threat to those outside the region.

Helping refugees will make the world a better place, but this kind of abstract welfare concern means that Americans must not be at risk.

Interestingly, not all high identifiers are the same. A 2006 study led by Sonia Roccas lays out an important distinction between high-identifiers who identify through a process called “glorification,” and those who identify through a process known as “attachment.” High-glorifiers focus on the superiority of their group and showing respect for the group’s rules and symbols. In contrast, those who are strongly attached feel emotionally connected to their group and want to improve and contribute to it.

Studies show that, when faced with morally questionable group behavior, those who are strongly attached are more critical of their group, while high-glorifiers are more likely to downplay wrongdoing by suppressing guilt or feelings of responsibility. In Roccas’ study, for example, Israeli students read about an event in which Israelis harmed Arabs. She found that high-glorifiers were more likely than others to endorse exonerating statements (e.g. “In my opinion, the Arabs brought the event upon themselves”), less willing to help the victims, and felt less guilt.

Leidner was interested in seeing how glorification influenced the way people responded to genocide. Although debates about the word generally assume that using it will increase support for intervention, Leidner hypothesized that it might have the opposite effect on high-glorifiers. He reasoned that genocide paints a conflict as a moral issue rather than a security issue. Genocide also tends to occur in highly localized conflicts, which means that intervention is likely to bring greater risks than non-intervention. Both these factors, Leidner thought, might make high-glorifiers less interested in intervening when the word was used.

Leidner presented American participants with a real New York Times article about the conflict in Darfur, but he changed the names of the locations and ethnicities to create a relatively novel narrative. Importantly, the articles were altered so some referred to the occurrence of genocide while others did not. Participants then answered questions about their support for intervention (from both the United States and out-group organizations such as NATO and the United Nations), their guilt, and their group-identification.

Across three studies Leidner found that the word genocide decreased support for American intervention among high-glorifiers, particularly when their level of attachment was also low. This effect failed to occur when it came to support for intervention by out-groups such as the U.N.

The finding is particularly relevant at the moment because the reasoning behind the way high-glorifiers react to the word genocide also applies to Syrian refugees. The bulk of the arguments for admitting refugees are based on morals rather than security, and the very notion of refugees from across the ocean implies a regional conflict whose refugee crisis doesn’t threaten American security. It stands to reason that these factors might lead high-glorifiers to decrease their support for helping.

What does this mean for swaying public opinion? One takeaway is that moral appeals to admit more refugees may fall on deaf ears, as such arguments reinforce to high-glorifiers that failing to admit refugees does not pose an immediate threat to American citizens. Accordingly, high-glorifiers may be more likely to respond to arguments about our lack of compassion strengthening Islamic extremism in the long run, thereby making the failure to admit refugees a direct threat to American citizens. Such an argument meshes well with recent research on the futility of arguing from your own values rather than the values of your opponent.

Any position on Syrian refugees is far more complicated than group identification (though Leidner’s findings were independent of political beliefs). The decision to support opening your country’s borders is driven by a variety of beliefs and values that no single study or psychological process can explain. Nevertheless, the work of both Roccas and Leidner provides a thoughtful example of the type of cognitive process that can lead somebody to act without compassion.