The science of why people fear refugees after terror attacks — and what to do about it

Feeling fearful in the wake of a terrorist attack is normal. It’s natural and human. And politicians intuitively understand the power of this emotion.

Just hours after Tuesday’s news broke that three explosions in Brussels, Belgium, claimed many lives in an apparent terrorist attack, Donald Trump described exactly what he would do to protect the fearful. He told Fox News, “I would close up our borders.” Sen. Ted Cruz issued a statement not long after: “We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence.”

These reactions are familiar. These politicians — and others — made similar statements after the November terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130. At that time, the fear was that ISIS attackers could sneak into countries alongside refugees. (It turned out all of the identified Paris attackers were European.)

But these fear-filled admonitions expose an unchanging truth: When global terror threats fill the news, lines between “us” and “them” get drawn. And Muslim immigrants, Syrian refugees, and any other potential refugees or migrants may unfairly get labeled as “them” in the aftermath.

There are plenty of strong arguments for why barring refugees or immigrants is a misguided idea. (Vox’s Amanda Taub has a great explainer on the current situation in Europe here.) Refugees are refugees because they are escaping violence, not joining it. It’s also worth remembering that America has a long and beneficial history of allowing in refugees and immigrants with Muslim backgrounds.

But it’s unlikely those arguments will get through to people like Trump and those who cheer his message. The forces pushing people to want to protect their own are always latent in the population — and perhaps increasing in a world where these attacks occur both regularly and unexpectedly. To fight those forces, we have to fully grapple with the psychology of fear.

What psychology can tell us about the backlash against refugees

Terrorist attacks set off one of our most fundamental gut reactions: When threatened, we draw clear lines between “us” and “them.”

“When attacks happen, there’s a [perceived] high cost in mistaking in-group, out-group members for one another,” says Mina Cikara, who runs the intergroup neuroscience lab at Harvard. I had spoken to Cikara — and other psychologists who study group fears — in the wake of the Paris attacks. “So when you see an attack like the one in Beirut or the one in Paris, it highlights those boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It means those boundaries become more closely circumscribed; they become tinier.”

It also means, Cikara says, that we overexaggerate our perceptions of who “they” are. Innocent Syrian refugees — or peaceful immigrants with a Muslim upbringing — can get caught up in our notions of who is a terrorist, no matter what the statistics say.

“Threat is the catalyst that shifts us from out-group disregard or indifference to out-group hostility,” she says.

Psychologists have also found that threats from these out-groups often appear much bigger and more imminent than they really are. Jay Van Bavel and his colleague Y. Jenny Xiao at New York University illustrated this concept nicely in a 2012 paper.

The test was simple: The researchers asked participants to estimate the straight-line distance from New York to Mexico City. Participants who expressed more animosity toward Mexican immigrants rated Mexico City as being several hundred miles closer to New York than people who felt less threatened. And, Van Bavel adds, “We have new data showing that if people think the wall between the countries is secure, this effect goes away.”

In other work, Van Bavel has found we don’t readily see human minds in the faces of out-group members. In 2014, he demonstrated this effect on me. In the experiment, he manipulated the faces to look like dolls, look normal, or be somewhere in between. The test is to decide at what point on this continuum the doll faces become human. When participants are led to believe they’re evaluating pictures of out-group members, the cutoff for humanness gets skewed. Participants are less willing to call the in-between pictures humans. Or, more simply put: When we look at the faces of out-group members, we avoid empathizing with them.

The uncertainty that comes in the wake of a terrorist attack is particularly effective at heightening our suspicion of outsiders. In 2014, Ingrid Haas, a political psychologist at University of Nebraska Lincoln, published a series of experiments showing that when her team manipulated participants’ fear as well as their feelings of uncertainty, the participants became more intolerant of others. Simply instilling fear wasn’t enough.

In other experiments, uncertainty has been found to strengthen feelings of group identity.

“Really the uncertainty is making things worse,” Haas told me in November. In chaotic news events, misinformation is bound to proliferate, and threatening narratives like “terrorists are sneaking in with refugees” prove particularly sticky.

(Since we spoke, Haas has reported new data that finds the combination of threat and uncertainty is also likely to decrease support for political compromise — and this effect is stronger among conservatives. Which also explains why the minds of Trump and Cruz and their supporters are unlikely to change. That research is forthcoming in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.)

Is there any way to change people’s minds about refugees?

The negative reaction to the refugees is more emotional than rational. And, psychologists say, it’s unlikely to be countered by statistics or logical counterarguments. To change people’s minds, either the negative emotions (“refugees are dangerous”) need to be turned down or more positive emotions (“refugees are human beings like us and need help”) need to be turned up.

“Before you can even get people to talk in any sort of rational, statistics-based way, of the probabilities of X, Y, and Z occurring, you have to attenuate [their] negative emotions,” Cikara says. “When those negative emotions are really high, good luck having a rational conversation about probability.”

Cikara singles out an intriguing experiment published in the journal Psychological Science that demonstrates it’s possible to teach people to downplay negative emotions in us-versus-them decision-making.

For that study, Israeli researchers taught half of their participants a technique called cognitive reappraisal — basically a method to challenge your negative emotions, question how they originate, and then watch them dissipate among that meta introspection. All of the participants were then instructed to look through materials designed to get them angry. A week after the training, all the participants were asked questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “What [the authors] found was that those who had practiced emotion regulation … actually preferred less hostile and more diplomatic approaches,” Cikara says.

Getting American politicians into cognitive reapprasial classes seems unlikely. But there is another approach. Charities have long understood the “identifiable victim effect,” which suggests that images of singular victims are easier to empathize with than statistics, even when those statistics are astronomical.

“This is why pictures and stories can be so powerful,” Deborah Small, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in an email. “In the case of Syria, we have identifiable perpetrators, which cause anger and fear, and then we have statistics about refugees. Identifying and telling the stories of more innocent refugees could make the victim’s case more moving.” (Perhaps relevant: Research has shown that suggesting a black person is on the same team as a white person can reduce racial biases.)

Identifying victims in this manner increases the feeling that they are “us” rather then “them,” and are therefore worthy of our empathy. “If you plopped a 5-year-old Syrian orphan at Chris Christie’s door, would he really shut it in his face?” Cikara asks. That’s an open question.

The passage of time also helps in reducing emotions. Haas offered a very practical solution in the wake of the Paris attack. “Maybe a better recommendation is just that we should wait a little while for the emotional response to die down a bit before making major decisions about changes to immigration policy, escalation of war,” she says.

“It’s going to be difficult for people to make well-reasoned decisions when the emotional response is so strong. This is probably better advice than trying to get average citizens to digest statistical information in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, which is usually what professors like to recommend.”

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