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Violence, Empathy and Altruism: Evidence from the Ivorian Refugee Crisis in Liberia

Institutions & Governance Liberia

In regions plagued by reoccurring periods of war, violence and displacement, how does past exposure to violence affect altruism toward members of different ethnic or religious groups? Drawing on theories of empathy-driven altruism in psychology, this article proposes that violence can increase individuals’ capacity to empathize with others, and that empathy born of violence can in turn motivate helping behavior across group boundaries. This hypothesis is tested using data on the hosting behavior of roughly 1,500 Liberians during the 2010–11 Ivorian refugee crisis in eastern Liberia, a region with a long history of cross-border, inter-ethnic violence. Consistent with its theoretical predictions, the study finds that those who experienced violence during the Liberian civil war host greater numbers of refugees, exhibit stronger preferences for distressed refugees and less bias against outgroup refugees, and host a higher proportion of non-coethnic, non-coreligious and distressed refugees. These findings suggest that violence does not necessarily lead to greater antagonism toward outgroups, as is often assumed, and that in some circumstances it can actually promote inter-group co-operation.

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