Refugees welcome?


A research project between RWTH Aachen, Philipps-Universität Marburg, and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on the influencing factors of individuals' willingness to help refugees


Wars or political unrest in numerous countries around the world in recent years are causing a larger number of people to flee their homes. In 2015, 1.3 million asylum seekers sought refuge in the EU. As a result, the EU countries are facing great challenges. The publicly led political debate on how to handle the refugee situation is showing increased polarization within the population in many countries: part of the population welcomes them with open arms and provides aid voluntarily, while the other part ranges from skeptical to hostile.

More Precise and Unbiased Results

An interdisciplinary team of psychologists and economists from Germany and the Netherlands recently investigated why this is. Previous studies had already investigated the population's motives and expecations of refugees using surveys. However these were formulated to already expect the socially desired answer and often did not prove any cause and effect relationships. In order to garner more precise and unbiased results, the team of researchers used methods from experimental economic research to develop a decision game that abstractly depicts the interaction between citizens and refugees. "In contrast to surveys, such a decision experiment offers the advantage of being able to depict realistic financial incentives and thus has real consequences for both the players acting as citizens and as refugees," emphasizes junior professor Robert Böhm, head of the Decision Analysis Research Group at RWTH Aachen.

Over 350 People Participated in the Decision Game

The team wanted to determine to what extent economic and psychological factors influence individuals' willingness to help. Over 350 people played different versions of the decision game in an interactive computer lab, in which they either acted as a citizen or refugee. As a citizen they completed tasks that were remunerated and taxed. They were faced with the decision how much of their tax money to give to fellow players to support them in their role as refugees. Players playing as refugees were dependant on citizens' help, as they were not allowed to complete tasks and thus earn money. "Our results show that a combination of economic and psychological factors influence the willingness to help," summarizes Dr. Hannes Rusch, an economic researcher at Philipps-Universität Marburg.

The personal costs that arose for citizens had the greatest influence on their willingness to help. Personality traits were additional factors that determined behavior towards refugees: citizens with a greater pro-social orientation and a strong capability for empathy were just as willing to help as individuals who leaned more to the left politically. The willingness to help increased when refugees were particularly in need of aid. Additionally, participants in the experiment demonstrated that they would be more willing to help if refugees were also required to complete the task, despite not earning anything for completing it. These findings lead researchers to believe that integration efforts could be honored with an increased willingness to help.

Political Measures Necessary

The current findings and further results from future research with the newly developed decision game could help develop effective political measures that help reduce the negative reactions of some citizens towards refugees. This would support successful integration. Paul Van Lange, professor of social psychology at Vriei Universiteit Amsterdam and one of the article's authors, suggests: "To reinforce the population's willingness to help, there must be political measures that enable refugees to show their sincere desire to integrate. For example, individual reports on their background and their integration could promote the willingness to help."

Source: Press and Communications