Research question: Can a minimally intrusive perspective-taking exercise induce more inclusionary attitudes and behavior toward refugees?
Preparer: Catlan Reardon
The study takes places two weeks prior to the highly polarized 2016 presidential election in the United States. The US and other democracies in Western Europe have seen an uptick in anti-refugee sentiment, partly driven by the large increase in refugees worldwide. In the United States, anti-refugee sentiment has taken on a strong partisan nature, with Republicans harboring increasingly negative attitudes toward immigrants. In this context, the authors field a randomized online survey experiment on a nationally representative sample of US adults to examine whether a minimally intrusive perspective-taking exercise – i.e. imagining yourself as a refugee – leads to more positive attitudes and behavior toward these vulnerable groups.
The perspective-taking exercise was conducted in an online survey of a nationally representative sample of 5,400 American adults. The survey was fielded in the two weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, in which policies related to immigrants and refugees were a major point of contention. In addition to the perspective-taking condition, the survey experiment included two other randomly assigned treatment conditions: an information-only group and a pure control group. Drawn from vignettes used by an actual NGO, the Pulitzer Center, the perspective-taking condition asks respondents to imagine themselves as a refugee, and to describe decisions they would have to make in three open-ended questions. The information-only condition displays – in the form of a graph – the low number of Syrian refugees relative to population size that the US committed to resettle compared to other democracies. Outcome measures include a semi-behavioral measure along with a rating of refugees aimed at capturing attitudes. To measure shifts in behavior, the authors ask respondents to write a letter to the (at that point undecided) 45th President of the United States supporting the admittance of Syrian refugees. Responses were coded as positive if respondents not only agreed to write a letter, but also included meaningful content in support of refugees.
The authors find that subjects in the perspective-taking treatment were significantly more likely to write a letter supportive of refugees compared to the control group, equivalent to an 11% increase. The treatment effect holds when compThe authors find that subjects in the perspective-taking treatment were significantly more likely to write a letter supportive of refugees compared to the control group, equivalent to an 11% increase. The treatment effect holds when comparing the perspective-taking subjects to those who received only information. The information-only treatment had no discernable effect on either attitudes or behavior toward refugees compared to the control group. Interestingly, they find the effect on letter writing crosses party lines, with a nearly 50% increase for Democrats and over 60% increase for Republicans, though baseline levels of letter-writing were substantially lower among Republicans. The increased likelihood of writing a letter for the perspective-taking condition, however, dissipates after a week. In addition, the authors do not find any effects, other than amongst Independents, on attitudes toward refugees, indicating the treatment may act as a nudge for those pre-disposed to think positively toward refugees. An examination of the probability of writing a letter across all levels of the attitudinal measure shows that those who rate refugees the highest were statistically more likely to write a letter in the perspective-taking condition compared to the same subset of individuals in the control group. This trend holds for both Democrats and Republicans.
Conflicts worldwide, including the enduring war in Syria, have contributed to a global refugee crisis, with over 25 million registered refugees, many of whom seek safety in other countries. Consequently, immigration and refugee policy are increasingly at the forefront of many political debates in the United States and other industrialized democracies. In the midst of highly polarized environments, political activists, and NGOs have tried to shape public opinion in ways that are more positive. As such, this study’s findings – that perspective-taking may be able to nudge people towards more positive behaviors – adds to growing efforts to reduce prejudice and foster inclusiveness toward vulnerable groups. Combined with the finding that an informational treatment did not promote inclusionary behavior, this suggests that perspective-taking interventions may hold more promise for organizations looking to shape public opinion.