World Refugee Day 2016
Volunteers with World Church Service in New York City talk with passersby about refugee settlement.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Study shows how to get more Americans — both Democrat and Republican — to act in support of refugees

  • Social scientists wanted to find out what would prompt Americans to take action in support of millions of Syrian refugees.
  • 5,400 American citizens participated in an online survey.
  • Those who were asked to put themselves in the shoes of refugees by answering a series of personal questions were most likely to write a letter to the White House in support of refugees.
  • Results strongest among Democrats but also observable in Republicans.

Recent years have seen the highest levels of forced displacement in recorded history. According to the UN Refugee Agency, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. Among them — more than 25 million refugees, of which half are children.

At the same time, anti-refugee sentiment has emerged in some of the wealthiest potential host countries, particularly in Western Europe and the United States, and there are growing partisan divides regarding attitudes toward immigrants in the US.

The war in Syria, one of the most significant humanitarian crises of our time, provides a critical opportunity for political scientists to understand what it will take for people, Americans in particular, to adopt inclusionary behavior toward refugees, reduce prejudice, and press their government to help those seeking asylum. More than five million Syrians have fled the country since the war began in 2011.

A man holds a 'Say No to Refugees' sign at Columbus Circle in New York City.
A man holds a 'Say No to Refugees' sign at Columbus Circle in New York City.

A nationally representative survey of Americans was conducted in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election to find out whether perspective-taking — in the form of a written exercise in which respondents answer a set of questions while imagining themselves in the shoes of a refugee — would increase the likelihood of someone writing an anonymous letter to the 45th US president in support of refugees.

Perspective-taking is a strategy already used by non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the British Broadcasting Corporation, with the goal of shaping public opinion toward refugees.

5,400 Americans surveyed

A third of respondents were randomly assigned to a perspective-taking exercise — answering questions that asked them to imagine themselves as a refugee.

“Imagine that you are a refugee fleeing persecution in a war-torn country. What would you take with you, limited only to what you can carry yourself, on your journey?

Where would you flee to or would you stay in your home country?

What do you feel would be the biggest challenge for you?”

The study results show that empathy can make a huge difference in someone’s willingness to take action for a vulnerable group.

20.8% of Americans who participated in the perspective-taking exercise opted to write a supportive letter to the White House for Syrian refugees, compared to 18.8% who didn’t take the exercise, a difference of roughly two percentage points.

Importantly, the effects of the perspective-taking exercise were strongest among those who already held positive attitudes toward refugees, suggesting that perspective-taking doesn’t necessarily change opinions but rather nudges people to act.

Melina Platas, Assistant Professor of Political Science
Melina Platas, Assistant Professor of Political Science

Action strongest among Democrats but also observable in Republians

Democrats

34% likelihood of writing a supportive letter to the White House for Syrian refugees after perspective-taking exercise

23% percent likelihood of writing such a letter in the control group

Republicans

7.4% likelihood of writing a supportive letter to the White House for Syrian refugees after perspective-taking exercise

4.6% likelihood of writing such a letter in the control group

Perspective-taking strategies could prove useful for political activists seeking to redirect public debate on refugees.

The most popular online petitions to Presidents Obama and Trump to increase US commitments to accept refugees target between 75,000 and 100,000 signatures.

The research findings suggest Americans who are asked to relate their own experiences to those of a refugee might be more willing to sign.

But there’s a caveat. It seems time is of the essence.

While perspective-taking can shift behavior in favor of refugees, it may only work in the short run. Half of the study sample was randomly selected to complete the full survey all at once, while the other half had the opportunity to write a letter in support of refugees one week later. Those who were asked to write a letter one week later were no more likely to do so than the respondents who didn't participate in the perspective-taking exercise at all.