People feel more empathy for asylum seekers when they see them crying, study says

LEIOA, Spain — Immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers capture more attention and support when people actually see the emotional impact their plight is having on them, a new study reveals. Researchers from the University of the Basque Country is Spain say images of migrants crying cause everyday people to feel more empathy.

The groundbreaking study found that when participants saw displaced individuals shedding tears, they perceived them as kinder, felt more solidarity with them, and were more willing to offer support and donate to charity.

There were more than 280 million migrants worldwide last year, according to United Nations figures. Study authors say that migrants arriving at the borders of Western countries are often portrayed as people expressing negative emotions, including anger, despair, fear, and sadness.

Although there are countless images of migrants crying, there has been little research into the emotional reactions of people who see these pictures. The new study addressed the question of whether emotional tears elicit feelings of solidarity and more offerings of support towards members of disadvantaged groups.

“People often want to help those who are crying. But are members of the host society more willing to help immigrants when they see these tearful images?” asks Magdalena Bobowik, a member of the CCE group during the study, in a university release.

Tears make immigrants seem ‘warmer’

Dr. Bobowik explains that the study is also the first to deal with the social effects of seeing tears — in the context of interculturality.

“The first piece of research to show that these emotional signals can change the host society’s responses to immigrants,” Bobowik adds.

Using images of emotional displays, the team conducted three experiments involving 546 adults.

“Compared with expressions without tears (i.e. neutral and sad ones), observers perceived the tearful immigrant as warmer but not less competent,” Dr. Bobowik continues. “They also felt more compassion (but not discomfort) and were more willing to offer the immigrant emotional support (i.e. reaching out and comforting) and instrumental support (i.e. donating money to an organization that helps immigrants, but not offering their time).”

‘Tears are a universal bonding signal’

“We have shown that tears are a universal bonding signal that conveys warmth, arouses compassion (but also anger) and increases intentions to offer emotional consolation and instrumental help to an immigrant in need through monetary donations,” adds Nekane Basabe, professor of Social Psychology at the UPV/EHU. “Images of immigrants shedding tears trigger similar responses towards those of members of one’s own group.”

“Understanding the effects of non-verbal communication, including the expression of emotions, among members of disadvantaged groups can be particularly crucial in combating discrimination and prejudice,” Basabe says.

“This research is a starting point for understanding how exposure to emotional audiovisual content influences the way we view and react towards members of ethnic and other social minorities. It is my hope that our research will make us reflect on the fact that the media can choose the specific expression or emotion with which to represent members of certain minority groups, and that these representations are translated into specific social responses,” Dr. Bobowik concludes.

The findings appear in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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