Train station experiment reveals one way to counteract bias against Muslims

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An experiment conducted in German train stations involving paper cups and escaping oranges has found that people are less likely to help a woman if she appears to be Muslim—but they're more likely to help that same woman if she somehow proves that she shares their social values.

The findings, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal that discrimination is a somewhat fluid phenomenon that can be mitigated—within certain limits.

Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study authors, said he has long been interested in the discrimination faced by immigrants. In his home country of Greece, he watched as two waves of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s led to conflict in what was once a very ethnically homogeneous country.

"It's a common argument, mainly by parties on the right, that immigrants are resistant to integrating," Sambanis said. "They justify conflict and negative attitudes toward immigration and arguments to reduce immigration by referencing these fears that immigrants don't want to integrate."

But would ethnic-majority citizens feel more welcoming if they knew that immigrants were indeed adopting the cultural norms of their new countries?

To probe this question, Sambanis set up an ambitious experiment with his former colleagues Donghyun Danny Choi (now at the University of Pittsburgh) and Mathias Poertner (on his way to Texas A&M University). The work took place in 29 train stations across three German states and involved 7,142 "bystanders" who became test subjects.

The researchers chose Germany for several reasons: it had the largest immigrant population among European countries, according to a 2017 United Nations report; it's among the most powerful countries in Europe, and it has a strong set of social norms about public behavior that the scientists could tap into for their experiment.

German society is famous for its norm enforcement, researchers said. For example, if you leave litter lying around in Germany, there's a good chance someone will ask you to clean it up.

With that in mind, seven teams of five people staged this scene for unsuspecting bystanders gathered at train stops:

A man at the platform would intentionally drop his used paper cup on the floor. A woman of color who appeared to be an immigrant would then ask him to pick up the cup and discard it in a nearby garbage can.

The woman's request "signaled to bystanders that (she) shared their norms and was a civic-minded person," the researchers explained in the study.

Moments later, her phone would ring. After she answered it, her bag would suddenly "break" and spew oranges across the platform.

At that point, the experimenters would document how many of the bystanders moved to help her gather the scattered fruit.

The scenario was repeated multiple times over several hours, but varied in key details. In about half the cases, the woman would ask the litterbug to clean up; in others, that request came from another female member of the team.

The researchers also varied the orange-spiller's appearance. The same woman of color would sometimes wear a hijab (a headscarf indicating she was Muslim), sometimes a cross (indicating she was Christian), and sometimes no religiously defined garb at all.

In some cases, the woman answered the phone in German; in other versions, she spoke in a foreign language.

Finally, in some instances, a white, German-speaking woman in secular clothing played the fruit-losing character in need of help.

The researchers performed 1,614 iterations of this two-step scene for more than 7,142 bystanders over three weeks in the summer of 2018. Then they analyzed the results.

When the orange-dropper was a white, German-speaking woman, bystanders helped her 78.3% of the time. A nonwhite "immigrant" wearing a cross or wearing only secular clothing was helped 76.4% of the time—which was not significantly different from the first scenario.

It seems that appearing to be of immigrant background did not reduce onlookers' inclination to be helpful, at least in this particular experiment.

"It was very surprising," Sambanis said. "It might say something about the level of multiculturalism that Germans have become accustomed to."

But the bystanders' helpfulness dropped if that woman appeared overtly Muslim. For instance, if the "immigrant" woman wore a headscarf, bystanders helped her only 66.3% of the time.

Acting more "German" appeared to mitigate this discrimination. The researchers found that when that Muslim woman asked a litterbug to pick up his trash, bystanders came to her aid 72.9% of the time; when she didn't, they offered help only 60.4% of the time. That 12.5-percentage-point difference was large enough to be statistically significant, the researchers calculated.

However, a white German woman who did nothing to stop the litterbug was helped about as often (73.3%) as the Muslim woman who went out of her way to do some social good.

In other words, the Muslim woman had to work harder just to be treated the same as a white German—reminiscent of the adage that certain minority groups have to "work twice as hard to get half as far."

To top it off, if a white German woman stepped up and told the man to clean up, the bystanders helped her the most often—a full 83.9% of the time.

The researchers also noticed big regional differences: In eastern Germany, bystanders were more likely to discriminate against the Muslim woman than were their counterparts in western Germany.

The reasons for that difference are unclear, Sambanis said. Perhaps it's due to eastern Germany's legacy of communism, or because economic conditions there are worse, or because residents in the east have less contact with minorities. The experiment could not discern which of these factors (if any) might linked to the heightened discrimination.

Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University who was not involved in the study, said the experiment was "remarkable for its imaginativeness and also for the scale at which it was conducted."

But he also pointed out a key distinction. Even though people were more likely to help a scarf-wearing Muslim if she engaged in a quintessentially German behavior, it didn't necessarily affect any deeply held prejudices about Muslim women.

Those onlookers could just have been characterizing her as an exception to an underlying rule, considering her "one of the good ones" while still thinking poorly of most Muslim women who looked like her.

"At the end we don't know whether this is a prejudice-reducing intervention or whether this is simply an intervention that measures different proclivities to discriminate," Green said.

Teasing out which of these mechanisms was motivating the bystanders' behavior will take further study, he said.

Sambanis said he and his colleagues would continue to probe the underlying processes at work. He said he planned to do a similar experiment in Greece, where the social norms are very different from German ones.

"If we want to think about policy interventions to reduce these behaviors, first we have to understand exactly what is the mechanism that causes this ," he said.

Explore further

Uncovering the roots of discrimination toward immigrants

More information: Donghyun Danny Choi et al. Parochialism, social norms, and discrimination against immigrants, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1820146116

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User comments

Aug 07, 2019
What about counteracting bias against Muslims by convincing the Muslims to commit fewer terrorist attacks and fewer crimes? That would make just about everybody happy.

Aug 07, 2019
I am not Anti Muslim but a woman that accepts chauvinistic abuse from men, needs to help themselves first by getting out of any culture that supports that abuse.

Aug 07, 2019
Some studies on how to reduce the head chopping and sex slave abductions would be nice.

Aug 08, 2019
Ah yes, muslims are the only people who are discriminated against. Lets make a study to prove yet another false narrative to give the extreme left another talking point. You know, Jews had it far worse a few decades ago in Germany, and still do all over the world. And it was Muslims who helped Hitler in his quest to try and exterminate the Jews. Why don't you see any studies about how Jews are treated in predominately Muslim countries? Or how gay people are treated in Pakistan? (they are tossed off the top of buildings by the way) Maybe, just maybe we can face the facts that Islam and Muslims in general are responsible for the majority of the violence that happens across the world. And, here is the kicker, maybe people are justified being wary of a woman in a head scarf when even talking to her could make her brothers or husband corner you in an alley and beat you within an inch of your life. Stop trying to hide the truth with your manufactured studies that have no basis in reality.

Aug 08, 2019
Bias will decrease when Muslims stop pushing women and children in front of oncoming trains.

Aug 09, 2019
People are afraid that immigrants don't want to integrate. Fair.

So it turns out that people don't mind a non-white immigrant wearing normal clothes, or even a small cross, etc. That's probably because that's a part of integration.

However when a non-white immigrant wears objectively and obviously Muslim garb, they face discrimination. That's probably because that is the opposite of integration... Add to that grouping together in their own areas, and effectively creating a "little (insert name of place they came from here)". That is also not integration...

People are afraid immigrants won't integrate, and hold it against them when they don't integrate... Hmmmmm

Aug 09, 2019
So the conclusion is, people are not prejudiced against immigrants, but against immigrants they perceive as not integrating. Which makes complete sense if you ask me.

Aug 11, 2019
Exactly! This article even acknowledges that.
Though there are people who are prejudiced against immigrants, just because they are immigrants.

What this article is trying to do is say, "See! They are integrating!" and make people feel guilty for thinking otherwise...

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