Train Experiment Hints at a Way to Reduce Discrimination Against Immigrants

What does it take for one person to help another? Turns out: not much.

Unsplash / Hello Lightbulb

In 2015, Europe received the biggest influx of migrants and refugees it had seen since the Second World War. Germany alone received 1.5 asylum seekers, the majority of whom fled war and unrest in the Middle East. Fours years later, the number of arriving migrants has drastically fallen, but Europe continues to grapple with the sociopolitical implications of migration. Anti-immigrant movements have swelled and are increasingly mainstream, leading authors of a new PNAS paper to investigate how to lessen conflict between natives and immigrant populations.

In an effort to better understand what drives conflict between these groups, the authors of the study published Monday conducted field experiments across 29 train stations in German cities. The question at its root was simple: What does it take for one person to help another?

The answer that emerged shows one way people judge who is “good” enough to receive assistance.

The study involved 7,142 train commuters who didn’t know that they were partaking in a simulated social experiment. Each individual watched a woman who needed help picking up oranges that spilled out of her bag. The woman was either white and German or a woman who could be perceived to be a Middle Eastern immigrant.

The “immigrant” woman presented herself differently during various trials: Sometimes she wore a hijab, sometimes she didn’t; other times she wore a clearly visible Christian cross.

The different iterations of the woman who needed help.

Donghyun Danny Choi, Mathias Poertner, Nicholas Sambanis

In one iteration of the experiment, the woman’s oranges simply spilled out of her bag. In another version, a German man would drop an empty coffee cup on the train platform, then the woman would ask him not to litter and he would unwillingly, but promptly, pick up the trash. When he left the scene, her bag would spill.

This woman, an undercover researcher, would carefully observe what would happen next.

After 1,614 iterations of the experiment ran over three weeks in the summer of 2018, certain patterns emerged. People helped the German woman retrieve her oranges 78.3 percent of the time. The “immigrant” woman was assisted only 71.3 percent of the time.

The percentage changed when the “immigrant” woman wore a hijab, signaling that she was Muslim. In those iterations, people helped 66.3 percent of the time, on average.

However, when the hijab-wearing woman asked the German man not to litter, her likelihood of receiving help rose by 12 percent.

The researchers write that they found “no evidence of ethnic discrimination per se” but that, “given that the level of assistance offered to immigrants in the control and in the cross condition is roughly the same as the assistance offered to natives, we can conclude that negative attitudes toward Muslim immigrants are what drive the results.”

The study evaluated Germans while they waited for the train.


The authors believe that, by asking the German man to pick up his trash, the woman who was read as Muslim signaled her respect for social norms and in turn was rewarded for her adherence to those norms. They point out that hating littering is a trait shared broadly across Germans and isn’t inherently linked to cultural or religious values.

“Adherence to this norm by immigrants signals that they care about their local environment and that they consider themselves part of their German communities,” the researchers write.

But is standing up to littering really the best way for immigrants to prove to their new countrymen that they care about Germany? Here, the authors suggest their data hints at something larger: Shared care for protecting norms can form a foundation for reducing discrimination and improving cooperation. Maybe the best way for people to be brought together is by realizing what they have in common.

This is not to say that racism against refugees is not widely documented in Germany, as well as other European countries who have received migrants. In the German state of Saxony, far-right and racist crime rose by 38 percent between 2018 and 2019. German Chancellor Angela Merkel maintains that Germany’s future depends on immigration and integration — but exactly how to achieve integration, and what form it will take, remains to be seen.

In-group bias and out-group prejudice are pervasive features of human behavior, motivating various forms of discrimination and conflict. In an era of increased cross-border migration, these tendencies exacerbate intergroup conflict between native populations and immigrant groups, raising the question of how conflict can be overcome. We address this question through a large-scale field intervention conducted in 28 cities across three German states, designed to measure assistance provided to immigrants during everyday social interactions. This randomized trial found that cultural integration signaled through shared social norms mitigates—but does not eliminate—bias against immigrants driven by perceptions of religious differences. Our results suggest that eliminating or suppressing ascriptive (e.g., ethnic) differences is not a necessary path to conflict reduction in multicultural societies; rather, achieving a shared understanding of civic behavior can form the basis of cooperation.
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