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Your attitude towards refugees is significantly shaped by a central belief: whether you think that people have the capacity to change – or not.
According to recently published research by Aneeta Rattan, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, together with Shilpa Madan, Adjunct Associate Research Scholar at Columbia Business School, Shankha Basu, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Leeds University Business School and Krishna Savani, Associate Professor of Strategy, Management and Organisation at Nanyang Business School, the degree to which people are open to and in favour of refugee resettlement in their home country is determined by whether or not they have a growth mindset.
The growth mindset describes an underlying belief system described by the well-established work of Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, that says that human beings can develop, evolve and adapt to new circumstances or contexts over time. Equally important is the alternative belief: that human behaviour is set and immutable, what Dweck describes as the fixed mindset.
It’s a distinction perhaps more relevant today than at any other time in history. The UN and other global bodies estimate that there are more displaced people in the world than at the end of World War Two, with more than 28,000 asylum seekers fleeing their homes every day because of war, environmental issues, or persecution. And these people are not always welcome elsewhere.
In most host nations, populations are divided about whether to accept and resettle refugees. A lot of this is predicated on a sense of difference – the fact that refugees are usually culturally distinct from the host nation – and the ramifications this has for economic and security concerns. Previous research has shown that when people in a host nation take an assimilationist view – that migrants should shed their home culture and take on the host culture – they exhibit more anti-migrant bias.
With her collaborators, Dr Rattan, a psychologist by training, wanted to test a new hypothesis: whether people’s beliefs about whether or not others can change generally might shape their feelings towards refugees.
Support for refugee resettlement
Drs Madan, Basu, Rattan, and Savani conducted a series of studies looking at how beliefs about the potential for change influence attitudes towards resettlement.
“We theorised that cultural differences between refugees and host societies would be a touchpoint for attitudes towards these displaced people. Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about someone who is different to yourself, culturally. But we wanted to dig a little deeper and look at how mindsets would shape these concerns.
We hypothesised that if you had a growth mindset – if you believed that people have that ability to change, that they can pick up your language, adapt to your customs and become a part of your culture – you would be more willing to allow these people into your society. If, on the other hand, you genuinely believed that people don’t have the ability to change – that they cannot navigate your cultural system or integrate fully with your way of life – then you will be less likely to welcome them into your nation.”
To test this, Dr Rattan and her co-authors put together six large-scale studies using samples in the US and the UK. The first study measured growth versus fixed mindsets in the context of refugee policy under the Obama administration. The second study looked at different policies in the UK in 2017, and the third returned to the US and used policies under the Trump administration. These studies established the baseline finding that mindset influences attitudes towards refugee resettlement: people who held a more growth than fixed mindset supported refugee resettlement more.
Study four randomly assigned people to read about the growth or fixed mindsets and to test whether mindsets have a causal influence on attitudes toward refugee resettlement, which they did.
Could versus should
Studies five and six took a more nuanced approach to the distinction between whether people believed refugees can adapt (meaning they are able to and have the option) or should assimilate (meaning they are obligated to shed their home culture) in the host society. Study five found no link between growth mindset and the perception that refugees should integrate – a key finding because anti-migrant bias is associated with the view that people should shed their home culture.
Study six replicated these effects, reconfirming that a growth mindset ties to the belief that can adapt but not that they are obliged to do so. Both studies looked at samples from the US.
It’s all down to mindset
Considering these six experiments, Dr Rattan and her colleagues reached two striking conclusions; findings that they argue have broad implications.
“Our flagship finding is that the more people hold a growth mindset, the more they are likely to support resettling refugees in their home country,” says Dr Shilpa Madan.
“And this basic effect holds across a range of cultural contexts in the US and the UK, and across people’s naturally occurring mindsets and also when their mindsets had been ‘manipulated’ or randomly assigned to determine the causal effect. Within the US we also looked at how mindset might intersect with political ideology, in terms of their liberal, Democrat affiliations versus Republican or conservative beliefs. Across all of these dimensions, our core finding holds true. When people believe that the kind of person someone is can change, they are more welcoming of resettling refugees in their home country.”
The research also points to an important secondary finding: while people with a growth mindset believe that people can change, they do not necessarily believe that people should be obligated to do so.
As Dr Krishna Savani explains: “Our studies show that, psychologically, these are two separate beliefs: the belief that people can change doesn’t equate to the belief that they should change. This is key. The view that people should in some way be obliged to adapt is associated with bias and negative attitudes or perceptions around resettlement. So this was very exciting for us.”
A defining issue for our times
These findings have broad-ranging implications for policy-makers, educators, press, and media and for those seeking asylum themselves, says Dr Shankha Basu. They constitute an imperative to everyone issuing or sharing information about refugee resettlement to “interrogate their assumptions about people’s fixedness or their capacity to change.”
“The refugee situation is one of the most defining issues of our times,” says Dr Rattan.
“There are more people seeking refuge than at any other point in our global history, and with the more affluent or stable countries in our world also facing economic, political or societal restrictions, this is an issue that can be hugely divisive. How we respond to it is critical.”
Dr Rattan emphasizes that there is no “prescription” for what people should think or believe about resettlement – instead she stresses the need for vigilance around how our attitudes can be shaped by our beliefs.
“We all sit somewhere on a sliding scale between the growth and the fixed mindset. I think our research shows that people need to be watchful for the kind of language used and how that language might be in some way shaping their attitudes. So if politicians or opinion leaders are invoking messages about growth or fixedness, I would urge the public to be mindful of how this can influence their views.”
While the studies did not take place in with organisational contexts, she says, they do have implications for the workplace – implications Dr Rattan and her co-authors would like to investigate further.
“It could be that companies that take a more growth view of their employees are more likely to hire resettled refugees. It could also be that organisations where employees generally have more growth, rather than fixed, mindsets are ones where resettled refugees have better performance outcomes, benefitting their economic outcomes as well as the organisation’s overall productivity.
“We are currently looking for companies with whom to collaborate on these ideas, in order to better understand the psychological dynamics behind attitudes and behavior toward refugees.”
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