The perfect refugee

I stumbled across a recent research article published in Science magazine, called “How economic, humanitarian, and religious concerns shape European attitudes toward asylum seekers” by Kirk Bansak, Jens Jainmueller, and Dominik Hangartner. This article struck my attention because I find the topic very interesting, because it was an experiment and not ‘just’ an empirical investigation of data, and because they decided to present their findings not only in a boring regression table, but in a colorful ropeladder plot.

I like ropeladder plots. They reduce the presentation of findings from regression models to a less complicated looking graph, and they have the advantage that they shift the focus away from the often frowned upon p-values, to confidence intervals. They also allow for a more direct comparison of the impact of different variables on the outcome variable, and not just with respect to their respective base categories.

In their experiment, the researchers showed each of around 18,000 participants ten different profiles of asylum seekers that randomly differed on nine attributes. Participants then had to decide which of these asylum seekers they would accept and which they would not accept.

Although the researchers do not explicitly state it, with this they created a profile of an asylum seeker with the highest possible chance to be accepted by European citizens:

She (yes, it’s a women) is 21 years and has no inconsistencies in her asylum testimony. In Syria, she worked as a doctor. She fluently speaks the language of the respective European country she is applying in for asylum, and is of Christian faith. She left Syria because she was threatened by ethnic persecution, and was victim of torture.

These characteristics all increase the probability that participants in the experiment rated the respective asylum seekers’ profiles more favorably.

What is surprising it that the data suggests participants of different political ideology (left vs. right), age (old vs. young), education (low vs. high), income (below vs. above median) do not differ much with respect to which of the characteristics matter most. One of the major differences, however, is that asylum seekers coming to Europe in search for better economic opportunities have a lower chance to be accepted by the Left, than by people from the Right. However, for the latter group of people, Muslims have a lower probability to be accepted than for people on the Left.

There are some other differences. You can easily spot them in the ropeladder plots.

Unfortunately, the researchers did not mention which of the respective profiles of asylum seekers would be accepted after legal examination, i.e. based on respective legal regulations (if this is even possible, considering the necessity to evaluate profiles on a case by case basis). It would be interesting to see how often citizens choose differently from how legal institutions would choose.

Additionally, the study raises (and also explicitly addresses) the question of whether legal institutions should follow the ‘opinion’ of the majority, or whether the majority needs to follow (succumb to) legal norms.

This question is of increasing importance in democratic countries, like Germany, where an increasing proportion of citizens that are unhappy with politicians demand for being directly involved in policy-making via so-called ‘Volksabstimmung’. Of course there are upsides as well as downsides to such a direct form of democracy. The downsides combined with a tendency of emotional argumentation, also referred to as ‘postfactualism’, can be dangerous, if not deadly. Legal institutions need to rely on certain unchangeable rights that cannot be subject to mood swings. These groundings are threatened when policy-making relies too heavily on the inconsistent preferences of European citizens.

However, for science, as well as for policy-making, it is imperative to find out where these sentiments and ‘mood-swings’ come from, and how to deal with them.