Syrian Refugees: Why the Freakout?

Fear of 'others' is a deeply human experience that tends to intensify under threatening conditions.

In the wake of deadly attacks in Paris last week, many Americans and plenty of Republican governors have been quick to voice concern over all Syrian refugees. Letting people in to the United States from a war-torn country, they argue, will make it easier for terrorists to get here, too.

It's not the first time that terrifying events have fueled fear and condemnation of entire groups of people. A haunting parallel occurred during World War II, when the United States forced 120,000 Japanese-Americans into detention camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

As policy debates intensify in Congress, it's worth examining the psychological factors that propel prejudice and xenophobia, experts say. By recognizing those underlying tendencies, we might be able to find a more peaceful path forward.

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"A xenophobic response is especially likely to emerge under conditions in which people feel more vulnerable," said Mark Schaller, a psychologist the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. That suggests, he adds, that "these prejudices are likely to be reduced under circumstances in which people feel less vulnerable. The implication is that public policy interventions can help."

Even though the United States is a nation built on immigration, more recent immigrants have often been met with deep suspicion. And foreigners frequently get blamed for overpopulation, violence, pollution, economic woes, terrorism and more.

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To understand where those attitudes come from, social scientists have proposed a variety of theories, many of them rooted in evolutionary principles that focus on prehistoric times, when humans lived in small groups. While cooperation within groups would have been important, Schaller says, clashes between groups likely led to violence, at least some of the time. Creating a hard line between "them" and "us," then, would have been a matter of survival.

Today, fear of danger is a deeply human experience that tends to intensify under threatening conditions. The same is true for prejudice, which can be exacerbated by all sorts of perceived threats, including fear of infection by disease and fear of economic turmoil during recessions.

Perhaps most relevant to recent events, fear of foreigners also often surges when people feel threatened physical in the context of war, terrorism, or even darkness. In a small 2003 study, simply being in a dark room made non-black participants more likely to express suspicious attitudes about black men.

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"When people feel more vulnerable to physical harm," Schaller said, "they are likely to be more prejudiced against people who seem to be ‘one of them' rather than ‘one of us.'"

But evolution alone cannot explain the fear and hatred that so many people express about modern-day immigrants, says Oskana Yakushko, a psychologist at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, Calif.

Instead, she argues that xenophobia – along with racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of prejudice – emerge within social and historical contexts that intersect with the psychological tendency to create social hierarchies.

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"In Europe and the United States, we tend to feel like we're at the top of the pecking order and that's how it's supposed to be," Yakushko said. "There's no sense that we're all in this together."

But immigration does not always spark panic, she says. And even in times of crisis, not everyone reacts with prejudice. That suggests that xenophobia may come from outside of us, instead of being embedded within us.

"I think if it were innate, we would all just go bonkers about how the immigrants are coming, and we don't," she said. "A host of other people feel such a commitment to welcoming them, to say, ‘My gosh, these people are traumatized and fighting for their lives and trying to save their children, and I want to help.'"

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Research also suggests a way out. For a 2013 study, Yakushko and colleagues surveyed Norwegian students about their attitudes toward immigrants. They found that living near or being exposed frequently to foreigners didn't make respondents more accepting of foreigners. But when they had direct and meaningful contact with members of other groups, they were far more likely to care about their stories and far less likely to be afraid.

"You might live in a community with immigrants, but that doesn't mean you have a warm and fuzzy feeling about people coming in," she said. "If you have a relationship with someone, that's what changes your attitude."

Syrian refugees and migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, pass through Slovenia on their way to Germany in October 2015.

As the European Union struggles to determine how to cope with the hundreds of thousands of migrants streaming into the continent to escape wars in the Middle East, the photo of a toddler's body washed up onto a Turkish beach is a haunting reminder of the plight facing the thousands who didn't make it in their attempts to seek asylum. The story is just the latest in a series of tragedies that have befallen migrants from the Middle East. Just last week, the bodies of more than 70 migrants were found in a truck near the Austrian village of Parndorf, a discovery that shocked European consciences. While it is too late for migrants such as three-year-old boy Aylan Kurdi, seen on the left with his brother in this photo from their mother's Facebook feed, his death could help to shift public opinion in Europe to do more for migrants. As difficult as the image might be to look at, putting a face on a tragedy can be a powerful means of expediting action on a critical issue. Take a look at other iconic images that shook the world. A warning: Some of these images contain graphic content.

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The Great Depression was a national tragedy that left millions of Americans destitute. Countless images of bread lines and Hoovervilles captured the nation-wide despair. But one image in particular, titled Migrant Mother, showed a face that would define the era. Taken by photographer Dorothea Lange in 1936, Migrant Mother features 32-year-old Florence Thompson, a mother of seven living among a community of migrant farm laborers in California. Thousands of laborers arrived at pea fields after seeing a notice promising jobs, only to find that freezing rains had destroyed the crop, leaving them without work. After the photos of her plight were published in thousands of newspapers around the country, tens of thousands of pounds of food arrived at the pea picker camp to alleviate the needs of its residents. By the time aid arrived, however, the Thompson family had already moved on.

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The Falling Soldier is a photo taken by Robert Capa, the famed early 20th century war photographer, on Sept. 5, 1936. Taken at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War it appears to show the moment of a bullet's impact on a loyalist soldier. It is one of the most famous war photographs of all time. The image would presage the wars to come in the 20th century, and how the medium of photography would shape public views on modern warfare.

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On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship then flying over New Jersey, became engulfed in flames while attempting to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst. The cause of the fire was never discovered, but the disaster cost the lives of 36 people, with 61 surviving. Aside from leading the public to lose faith completely in the airship industry, the Hindenburg disaster was also widely covered event in newspapers, newsreels and radio. Herbert Morrison's eyewitness radio report for station WLS in Chicago, which featured the famous line, "Oh, the humanity," was rebroadcast across the nation following the event.

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The history of the civil rights movement is often portrayed as one of triumph in the face of adversity. What is often missed is the manner in which racism and discrimination permeated every single facet of the daily lives of African Americans living in a country that did not treat them with dignity. Following the verdict in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, schools across the nation were compelled by federal law to desegregate, accepting both white and black students. The Little Rock Nine were a group of African American teenagers who would be the first black students to attend Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. What should have been a simple walk to the first day of school for Elizabeth Eckford and eight other students turned into an ordeal that pitted them against an angry mob and the Arkansas National Guard, who prevented the students from entering the school. The Pulitzer-Prize winning photos taken that day helped to inspire Dwight D. Eisenhower to send federal troops to Little Rock.

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On a June 11, 1963, on a busy road in Saigon, Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolated in an act of protest against official government discrimination against Buddhists. Journalists had been told that something important would happen that day, but only a handful bothered to show up. Malcolm Browne was one of the photographers on the scene and won a Pulitzer Prize for the shot of Quang Duc's suicidal protest. The photo reverberated around the world, and even led President John F. Kennedy to reassess American policy toward Vietnam.

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Americans protesting the Vietnam War were also risking their freedom and losing their lives demonstrating for a cause. On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds on a group of unarmed students. Four died, and nine were wounded. This image, snapped by photographer John Filo, shows the aftermath of the shooting, when a 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio grieved over the body of 20-year-old student Jeffrey Miller. The photo and news coverage of the shootings drew a nation-wide response and helped add fuel to the anti-war movement. Instead of quelling student protests, the Kent State shootings, and similar incidents at other colleges like Jackson State, ignited a nation-wide student movement that pulled in millions of additional protesters.

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The Vietnam War brought for the first time war to the living rooms of ordinary Americans, who watched developments as they unfolded through their television screens. What they saw ultimately turned public opinion against the conflict and led American politicians to pull out troops. One of the most horrific images to emerge from the war was one shot by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who captured this shot of terrified children running from a napalm attack. In the center is a naked, nine-year-old Kim Phuc, who ripped off her burning clothes while running away. Phuc is still alive to this day, a peace advocate who later opened a foundation to help child victims of war. He's shown here holding his iconic photo.

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The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 began as a pro-democracy student movement on April 15 and ended with the massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, at the hands of government forces by June 4. As many as 10,000 were also arrested for their roles in the protest. On June 5, a column of tanks made their along Chang'an Boulevard toward Tiananmen, the day after the massacre that had cleared the square. A single man wearing a white shirt and black pants, and carrying two shopping bags stood defiantly in front of the tanks. The tank driver attempted to drive around the man, who again blocked his way. The man then climbed the tank and began shouting at those inside before jumping down and being escorted away. Although the identity of the man remains a mystery even today, the image of his nonviolent protest was one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century.

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If there's one photo that captures the desperation of someone living without food, it's this shot of a starving Sudanese girl being watched by a vulture, taken in March 1993. The girl had been struggling with her parents to reach a food center run by the United Nations. The photo was taken by Kevin Carter, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Pained by recent personal setbacks and a lifetime of photo subjects haunting him, Carter took his own life in June 1994.

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The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a national tragedy that left a mark on all Americans and was watched in real-time around the world as both towers collapsed, sending clouds of dust and debris across Manhattan. One of the most notable photos from the attack was this image, showing the moment at which the South Tower was hit, which erased all doubt that the initial strike on the North Tower was a tragic accident, but instead a deliberate act of war. The day shattered the sense of security many Americans had prior to the attacks and would have repercussions around the world still very real today.

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