Explaining Americans' Reluctance to Accept Syrian Refugees

Terror management and moral exclusion in the opposition to Syrian resettlement

Posted Nov 25, 2015

Millions of Syrians have left their war-torn homeland in search of safety, more than half under the age of 17. Yet recent polls find that over half of Americans are opposed to accepting Syrian refugees. I’m not one of those Americans. The Syrian conflict has created the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII and I think it’s incumbent upon us to help. I also think it’s wise given the lessons of history and what we know about peacemaking and international relations. But obviously, many Americans don’t feel the way I do. 

I have many psychology-related thoughts on this matter. For example, one interesting explanation for Americans’ reluctance is provided by terror management theory (TMT). TMT suggests that humans’ awareness of their inevitable death creates anxiety. People manage this mortality awareness partly through “cultural worldviews” that provide permanence, order, and meaning.

In one TMT experiment, reminding Americans of the 9/11 attack increased “mortality salience” and intensified people’s allegiance to and defense of the nationalistic aspects of their cultural worldviews. It also increased support for politicians using patriotic rhetoric and invocations of God. Many experiments find that mortality salience increases in-group biases and increases hostility and aggression towards out-group members. In other words, when people are reminded of their mortality, they have more negative reactions to people they believe challenge their cultural values and they have more positive reactions to those that uphold them. However, research indicates that when people’s worldview includes openness and respect for diversity, mortality salience may increase tolerance of dissimilar others.

From a TMT standpoint then, the Paris attacks increased American mortality salience and reminded them of the 9/11 attacks. For Americans whose cultural worldview and values include openness and tolerance, this would result in increased support for accepting Syrian refugees but for other Americans, we’d expect increased nationalism and conservatism, and enhanced support for conservative and nationalistic politicians and policies.

When thinking about American reluctance to help refugees, I also think of the concept of moral exclusion. The concept of moral exclusion refers to the fact that most people exclude some groups of people from their “scope of justice.” The more different a group of people is from our own, the more likely we are to accept their disadvantage, hardship, and victimization and the less likely we are to act. Were some of these same things to happen to our own “moral community” we would be sad, outraged, and act to restore justice.

Moral exclusion means that we may be indifferent to injustices that occur to people who are not like us, that we may engage in just-world thinking and insist there is no injustice, or that we may participate in discriminatory or violent acts towards people who are not like us and not see anything wrong with it. In this case, the Syrian refugees are Muslim and Middle Eastern and fall outside the moral community of many Americans.

I also think about personality and how it may overcome moral exclusion and mortality salience. In WWII, there were many people who declined to help the millions of people targeted by the Nazis because they were Jewish, Gypsy, LGBT, or disabled, but there were also people that took great risks to save people that were different from themselves. Several decades after World War II Elizabeth Midlarsky and her colleagues compared the personality traits of non-Jewish heroes of the Holocaust with non-rescuers (bystanders and prewar immigrants to the United States). The researchers found the rescuers were independent people with an internal locus of control (a belief that they had personal control over life events). They were highly empathic, easily taking another’s perspective and understanding how someone else might feel. They were risk-takers of the sort willing to take on risks or challenges for things they felt were important. When considering dilemmas involving others they thought about the greater good. They believed helping less fortunate others was the right thing to do. Their action was fueled by these traits (empathy, internal locus of control, risk-taking, social responsibility, and other-oriented morality).

Research on helping behavior tells us that when people don’t have empathy, they only help if the benefits outweigh the costs. It also tells us that we have more empathy for people that are like us. But helping is sometimes a selfless act arising out of strength, virtue, and good character. It sometimes involves risk and helping people that are different from us. Such helping provides balance to humans’ many selfish and aggressive tendencies. Helping the Syrian refugees may be one of the only silver linings to this harshest of human storm clouds.

Note: You can help the Syrian refugees now by donating money to aid organizations. Click here for a list and links.


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