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Adhering to Cultural Norms Can Help Immigrants Elicit Acceptance, Study Finds

New research finds Germans are less likely to help a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, but this bias fades if she demonstrates agreement with the national consensus that littering is bad.
A man waves a German flag.

Is a cohesive multicultural society really possible? The racist reaction to the increased immigration to both the United States and Europe indicates the question may be more open than previously thought. Research shows the human mind reflexively divides people into "us" and "them," and many people instinctively categorize those of a different race, culture, or religion as dangerously foreign.

What will it take for citizens to accept immigrants as fully integrated members of society? New research points to a promising if partial solution: A shared commitment to national norms.

A large study finds Germans display more friendliness and compassion to a hijab-wearing Muslim woman if she has behaved in a way that signals assimilation into the culture. In cleanliness-obsessed Germany, that means she has called out someone who litters.

For Muslim immigrants, "good citizenship has some benefits," University of Pennsylvania political scientist Nicholas Sambanis, the study's senior author, said in announcing the findings. "The degree of discrimination toward Muslims goes down if they signal that they care about the host society."

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted on train platforms in 28 German cities. The basic experiment, with variations, was repeated more than 1,600 times in front of a total of more than 7,000 bystanders.

Bystanders watched a German man, an actor, drop an empty coffee cup on the platform. A nearby woman, also an actor, who was observing him, then either ignored the action or admonished him to pick up his trash. Although clearly irritated, the man did so and walked away.

The woman then received a phone call, and, while talking, she "accidentally" dropped a bag of oranges, which began to roll to various parts of the platform. The researchers noted whether any of the bystanders assisted her by helping her retrieve the pieces of fruit.

Three-quarters of the time, the female was a young immigrant with Middle Eastern features. For some rounds, she wore common street clothes; for others, she wore a Christian cross around her neck; for still others, she wore a traditional hijab. An ethnic German woman played the role for the final one-quarter of the rounds.

The researchers found the ethnic German woman received unsolicited help more than three quarters of the time. So did the immigrant woman when dressed in street clothes (the cross had no impact whatsoever). However, the woman in the hijab got assistance in only 66 percent of the trials.

Surprisingly, further analysis found this difference was driven by increased indifference among women bystanders. Sambanis hypothesizes that many may have viewed her hijab, and the cultural practices it symbolizes, "as threatening to hard-won advances in women's rights."

The authors' main finding, however, was that the woman in the hijab was more likely to get help if she had admonished the litterer a few moments earlier. She received help just over 60 percent of the time if she had ignored the littering, but that figure went up to nearly 73 percent if she had called the man out.

Those figures followed the same pattern when the German woman played that role. She got help 73 percent of the time if she ignored the litterer, and 84 percent if she had said something to him.

"The majority of the subjects in our experiment do behave in a cooperative manner towards both Germans and immigrants," the researchers conclude. "While religious differences increase social distance between native and immigrant population ... our findings suggest that norms can form the basis for the reduction in discrimination and improved cooperation."

Given that U.S. culture is heavily individualistic, it's difficult to immediately come up with some equivalent norm that would signal Americanness. A cynic might point to carrying a gun. Sambanis and his colleagues plan to conduct a similar experiment in the less-rigid society of Greece, which may provide some clues.

So let's not outlaw single-use coffee cups just yet. They may help people look past superficial differences and bond over shared values.