Research Project "Refugees welcome?"


RWTH Aachen University is collaborating with the Philipps-Universität Marburg and the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam on a research project that examines the influencing factors on the willingness to help refugees.

In recent years, political instabilities around the world have drastically increased the number of people seeking refuge. For instance, the European Union received approximately 1.3 million first-time asylum seekers in 2015 alone. The challenges associated with the large number of refugees have caused political polarization among the citizens of the host countries: one camp welcomes and supports refugees, whereas another one rejects them.

New research by an interdisciplinary team of psychologists and economists from Germany and the Netherlands investigated some of the potential driving forces behind people’s willingness to help refugees. Previous research has examined host countries’ citizens’ motives and beliefs regarding refugees using questionnaires and surveys. The results of such measures are potentially biased due to socially desirable responding and often are not able to capture causal relationships between characteristics of the situation and helping behavior. Therefore, the researchers used the methods of experimental economics. They developed a “Refugee Game” that models the economic and psychological components of the relationship between citizens and refugees. Players in the role of citizens engage in an effort task that generates a personal income, but part of their income is contributed to a collective good via a tax. Afterwards, they decide how much of this collective good they would like to share with players in the role of refugees, who did not participate in the effort task and therefore did not contribute to the collective good. Thus, refugees passively depend on citizens’ help. “The advantage of the Refugee Game is that it creates realistic incentives. Unlike survey research, citizens’ helping decisions have actual financial consequences for both themselves and the refugees.” says lead author Juniorprofessor Robert Böhm, who heads the School's Decision Analysis research group.

In three studies, the researchers invited more than 350 participants in total to play different versions of the Refugee Game in an interactive computer laboratory. The results demonstrate that both economic and psychological factors are key in explaining citizens’ willingness or unwillingness to help refugees. The costs associated with helping refugees played an important role. But personality characteristics of the citizens mattered as well. Citizens with greater levels of prosocial orientation and empathy, as well as with a rather liberal/left political orientation, were more willing to bear personal costs in order to help refugees. Costly helping further increased when refugees had a greater neediness. Moreover, the researchers found that citizens’ willingness to help refugees also increased when refugees had to exert at least some effort in order to be eligible for support by the citizens. The latter finding can be interpreted as a positive effect of refugees’ integration efforts on citizens’ willingness to help them.

“Our findings indicate that a nexus of economic and psychological factors matter for citizens’ willingness to help refugees.” summarizes Robert Böhm. Current results and future insights obtainable using the Refugee Game might help to design effective policies that decrease citizens’ negative reactions toward refugees, thereby facilitating successful integration of refugees. Paul Van Lange, Professor of Social Psychology at the VU Amsterdam and another author of the article, suggests: “Policies that enable refugees to demonstrate their genuine commitment toward integration may be essential if one seeks to promote greater acceptance of refugees among the host citizens. For instance, stories told by individual refugees about such efforts may make a difference, just as individual stories that bring to life their neediness to find a safe new home.”

You can read the corresponding article here.




Robert Böhm

Decision Analysis