Violence, Empathy, and Altruism: Evidence from the Ivoiran Refugee Crisis in Liberia
55 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2016 Last revised: 17 Apr 2018
Date Written: January 1, 2017
In regions plagued by reoccurring periods of war, violence, and displacement, how does past exposure to violence affect altruism toward members of different ethnic or religious groups? Drawing on theories of empathy-driven altruism in psychology, we propose that violence can increase individuals’ capacity to empathize with others, and that empathy born of violence can in turn motivate helping behavior across group boundaries. We test these hypotheses using data on the hosting behavior of 1500 Liberians during the 2010-2011 Ivorian refugee crisis in eastern Liberia, a region with a long history of inter-ethnic conflict and cross-border violence. We find that individuals who directly or indirectly experienced violence during the Liberian civil war host greater numbers of refugees. We also find that violence-affected individuals host a higher proportion of non-coethnic and non-coreligious refugees, as well as higher proportions of refugees who had health problems upon arrival or had fled direct violence. Finally, using a conjoint experiment to measure the influence of refugee attributes on respondents' willingness to host, we find that while bias against outgroup refugees is strong overall, individuals who previously experienced violence exhibit less bias and have stronger preferences for refugees in distress. These findings suggest that violence does not always result in greater antagonism toward outgroups, as many have argued, and that in some circumstances it can actually promote cooperation between groups.
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