The Science of Belief: Move Beyond “Us” and “Them” to “We”

Illustration by Ailadi.

“Viewing a person as a member of a group has profound consequences on how people process information about others, feel about others, and act toward others.” -Dovidio, Gaertner and Saguy, 2009

Why do people hold prejudiced beliefs toward refugees and people seeking asylum? How can we develop communication strategies to engender more positive feelings toward refugees?

More than 40 years of research across a range of academic disciplines suggests that people are motivated by their desire to maintain a positive sense of self and a sense of belonging within their social groups. As a result, people often evaluate people in their group more positively than those they perceive as outsiders.

In fact, people tend to have a more positive memory for how insiders are similar to them and how outsiders are different from them. People believe that those in their group are more trustworthy and share similar values. They also see people within their group as more unique and distinct from one another, and people outside the group as more homogenous or similar in traits, beliefs, and actions (Gaerther et al., 1996).

When a group is perceived to be alike, it is easier to hold biases and make generalizations about them. Researchers believe that prejudice may result from perceived physical or ideological threat to one’s social group, rather than dislike or hostility toward a group of people (Brewer, 2007). Starting with this understanding of the human mind can help us design communication strategies to shift sentiment toward refugees.

Media analyses suggest that refugees are often situated as outsiders in stories told about them (Abid, Manan and Rahman, 2017; Greussing and Boomgaarden, 2017; Lawlor and Tolley, 2017). For example, in Western countries, news media often frame refugees as a burden or threat to a community, where humanitarian stories often frame refugees as helpless people in a far-off land in need of help. Both narratives — while sympathetic — consistently situate refugees as outsiders. Our job as communicators is to shift the narrative from “us” and “them” to “we.”

When we make outgroup members ingroup members, outgroup members may reap the same cognitive benefits described above that people extend to ingroup members. As Gaertner and his colleagues (1996) write, “Circumstances that induce a one-group representation are able to extend the cognitive and motivational processes that produce positive feeling towards ingroup members to outgroup members.”

Research from Australia, for example, finds that many citizens are not sure who refugees are, and therefore hold false beliefs about them and fear that refugees will not assimilate to their culture. Increased positive and meaningful contact with refugees has been found to be effective in reducing anxiety that leads to prejudice, and, as a result, increase support for legislative change and willingness to act for social change on behalf of refugees in Australia (Pederson, 2005; Turoy-Smith et al., 2013).

How to move from “them” to “we”

When we turn outsiders into insiders — by highlighting, for example, a shared task or fate — we close the psychological distance between groups, speak to people’s inclinations for ingroup favoritism and improve the relationship between the groups (Brewer & Gardner, 1996; Gaertner and Dovidio, 2014). And just using inclusive language like “us” and “we,” rather than “them” or “they” can be effective (Gaertner et al. 1993).

Sharing stories that highlight how refugees are different from each other may be effective in dispelling generalizations and stereotypes.

For example, in one study researchers examined whether stories could reduce prejudice toward Arab-Muslims in the United States. Participants read either a counter-stereotypical one-page summary or a long fictional counter-stereotypical story about Arab-Muslim culture, featuring a strong-willed Muslim woman. Then the researchers measured participants’ empathy and prejudice toward Arab-Muslims. Participants who read the longer story were more likely to exhibit empathy– a critical element for reducing prejudice. And for some participants who felt anxiety about interacting with Arab-Muslims, the long story reduced their anxiety (Johnson et al., 2013). The researchers theorize that the story reduced prejudice through indirect contact with a counter-stereotypical Arab-Muslim character.

The story of Syrian ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh is an example of how a story can challenge stereotypes held about Syrian refugees, create contact for an audience who may not know a refugee, and show the unique contributions of refugees to their communities.

Refugee Uses Ballet to Create Message of Peace via YouTube

Increasing contact between groups can undermine prejudice

A promising approach for reducing bias is to foster positive contact between ingroup and outgroup members (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2002). This kind of interaction can reduce perceptions of threat. One way to do that is to host events that offer quality contact between group members and highlight how the groups are more similar than different.

In a meta-analysis, Pettigrew and Tropp (2008) found that contact can reduce anxiety toward outsiders and increase empathy and perspective taking. Similarly, one study from Australia found that increased contact with Indigenous Australians and refugees reduced anxiety and prejudice and increased willingness to act in support of these groups (Troy-Smith, Kane and Pederson, 2013). And in another study, researchers were able to increase positive feelings toward refugees for British children ages 5 to 11, through stories that featured friendships between ingroup members (English characters) and outgroup members (refugees) (Cameron, Rutland, Douch, and Brown, 2006).

We can also increase contact through community events. The annual Refugee Food Festival brings together locals and refugees through a shared interest in food. As Céline Schmitt, UNHCR’s spokesperson in France said in an article featured in UNHCR USA News, “The Refugee Food Festival mobilizes citizens, cities, NGOs, restaurants, refugees, and UNHCR to work together to help dispel myths around refugees, facilitate their integration into the communities that welcome them and create a shared experience around the festival.”

To drive belief change we need to understand the root sources of prejudice. Doing so can help us design communication efforts that can shift how people think and act toward refugees.

In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida partnered to better understand how science can connect individuals with calls to actions that will result in lasting difference on the issues that matter most.

This research project shares theory and science that helps us understand how people think and act, and is designed to help you incorporate those insights into your work. The exploration is divided into three articles:

Each article theme has robust empirical and theoretical findings and debates. We’ve sought to include the works of prominent scholars to get you started, and hope to spark your desire for further exploration.

Thank you to Eugenia Blaubach for editorial support on this series.


Abid, R. Z., Manan, S. A., & Rahman, Z. A. A. A. (2017). ‘A flood of Syrians has slowed to a trickle’: The use of metaphors in the representation of Syrian refugees in the online media news reports of host and non-host countries. Discourse & Communication, 11(2), 121–140.

Brewer, Marilynn B. “The social psychology of intergroup relations: Social categorization, ingroup bias, and outgroup prejudice.” (2007)

Brewer, Marilynn B. “The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love and outgroup hate?.” Journal of social issues 55.3 (1999): 429–444

Brewer, Marilynn B., and Wendi Gardner. “Who is this” We”? Levels of collective identity and self representations.” Journal of personality and social psychology 71.1 (1996): 83

Cameron, L., Rutland, A., Brown, R., & Douch, R. (2006). Changing children’s intergroup attitudes toward refugees: Testing different models of extended contact. Child development, 77(5), 1208–1219.

Dovidio, John F., Anja Eller, and Miles Hewstone. “Improving intergroup relations through direct, extended and other forms of indirect contact.” Group processes & intergroup relations14.2 (2011): 147–160

Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., & Saguy, T. (2009). Commonality and the complexity of “we”: Social attitudes and social change. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(1), 3–20.

Gaertner, Samuel L., and John F. Dovidio. Reducing intergroup bias: The common ingroup identity model. Psychology Press, 2014

Gaertner, S. L., Dovidio, J. F., & Bachman, B. A. (1996). Revisiting the contact hypothesis: The induction of a common ingroup identity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 20(3–4), 271–290.

Gaertner, S. L., Dovidio, J. F., Anastasio, P. A., Bachman, B. A., & Rust, M. C. (1993). The common ingroup identity model: Recategorization and the reduction of intergroup bias. European review of social psychology, 4(1), 1–26.

Greussing, E., & Boomgaarden, H. G. (2017). Shifting the refugee narrative? An automated frame analysis of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 43(11), 1749–1774.

Johnson, Dan R., et al. “Reading narrative fiction reduces Arab-Muslim prejudice and offers a safe haven from intergroup anxiety.” Social Cognition31.5 (2013): 578–598

Lawlor, A., & Tolley, E. (2017). Deciding Who’s Legitimate: News Media Framing of Immigrants and Refugees. International Journal of Communication, 11, 25.

McKay, Susan, and Jeffery Pittam. “Determinants of Anglo-Australian stereotypes of the Vietnamese in Australia.” Australian Journal of Psychology45.1 (1993): 17–23

Pedersen, Anne, et al. “Attitudes toward Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers: The role of false beliefs and other social-psychological variables.” Australian Psychologist40.3 (2005): 170–178.

Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Linda R. Tropp. “How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice? Meta‐analytic tests of three mediators.” European Journal of Social Psychology 38.6 (2008): 922–934

Pettigrew, Thomas F. “Intergroup prejudice: Its causes and cures.” Actualidades en Psicología 22.109 (2008): 115–124.

Seyranian, V. (2014). Social identity framing communication strategies for mobilizing social change. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(3), 468–486.

Turoy‐Smith, Katrine M., Robert Kane, and Anne Pedersen. “The willingness of a society to act on behalf of Indigenous Australians and refugees: The role of contact, intergroup anxiety, prejudice, and support for legislative change.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 43.S2 (2013)

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and…

Thanks to Ellen nodine, UNHCR Innovation Service, and Ann Searight Christiano

Annie Neimand, Ph.D.

Written by

Director of Research for the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida.

The Arc

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

Annie Neimand, Ph.D.

Written by

Director of Research for the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida.

The Arc

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

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