February 2024

IZA DP No. 16802: Does a Tragic Event Affect Different Aspects of Attitudes toward Immigration?

Odelia Heizler (Cohen), Osnat Israeli

published online in: Migration Studies, 07 March 2024

Dramatic events can evoke feelings of compassion, fear, or threat, and can affect public opinion regarding controversial issues. Such an event was the drowning of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish shore, and was photographed, producing an iconic image that was seen worldwide. The image evoked empathy and compassion that neuroscience and psychological research associate with a motivation to help. This paper examines the impact of this event on four different aspects of attitudes toward immigration, some of which are more closely linked to pro-social behavior than others. The timing of the European Social Survey in Portugal allowed us to use this tragic event as a natural experiment. Our results show that Kurdi's drowning had a significant effect on emotion-related sentiments, but no such impact was detected on other attitudes. The results suggest that the event did not change the respondents' opinion regarding the possible negative consequences of immigration on the host country's economy, crime level, or culture, nor did it change their perception of the skills required by immigrants. On the other hand, the empathy induced by the tragic event increased their willingness to have a less restrictive immigration policy and their openness to having close social relationships with immigrants.