Research & Insights

Use This One Emotion to Change the Conversation on Immigration

Many people are seeking solutions to counter the growing anti-immigrant sentiment permeating media and political campaigns.

Turns out, you can reduce prejudice toward immigrants by reminding people of times when they felt compassion for others, according to new research from social psychologist Lisa Sinclair and her colleagues.

Published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, the studies examined the differences between compassion and empathy in increasing positive feelings for immigrants.

While empathy contains a focus on “feeling what another person is feeling,” compassion, goes further to “include the motivation to provide help.”

One study asked participants about their levels of compassion – measured with statements such as, “I feel a selfless caring for most of mankind” –  and empathy – “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” Participants then ranked their feelings toward immigrants using a scale from 0 (“extremely unfavorable”) to 100 (“extremely favorable”).

In another experiment, participants completed a short writing prompt before rating their attitudes toward immigrants. Some participants were asked to “describe a time when they felt moved to selflessly give of themselves because they wanted the best for another person” (compassion) while others were asked to describe a “time when they were able to take another person’s perspective and feel what that person was feeling” (empathy). A third group was asked to describe a “time when they felt particularly happy” (positive mood) and a final control group was asked to describe an average school day.

In both experiments, the researchers found that participants primed to feel compassion felt less prejudice toward immigrants than the participants who were primed with empathy, a positive mood or neutral.

So, creating empathy isn’t enough to combat anti-immigrant views.

Instead, “prejudice is lessened when people focus on an experience of giving of themselves for the good of another,” the researchers explain.

If you are trying to get people to help others, remind them of a time they did it before.

Social Psychology and Personality Science

Researcher: Lisa Sinclair, Beverly Fehr, Wan Wang, and Elise Reghr, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Canada

Posted: January 27, 2016
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