Tears facilitate responses towards members of socially disadvantaged groups

The Culture, Cognition and Emotion group explores how emotional content fosters empathy and solidarity towards immigrants

  • Research

First publication date: 07/07/2022

Magdalena Bobowik and Nekane Basabe with various collaborators and members of the research group (UPV/EHU).

A study conducted by researchers from the Department of Social Psychology of the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country shows that when people are shown images of immigrants shedding tears, they perceive them as kinder, feel more empathy towards them and are more willing to offer support and make a donation to an NGO.

Among disadvantaged groups, immigrants are a significant group of global concern. According to the UN, there were 280.6 million migrants worldwide in 2021. Despite growing migratory trends and the fact that we all live in ethnically diverse environments, immigrants arriving at the borders of Western countries are often portrayed in the media as people experiencing and expressing negative emotions, ranging from despair and sadness to anger and fear. Although images of weeping immigrants abound in the media, little is known about reactions to emotional tears shed by members of other groups, including socially disadvantaged groups such as immigrants.

A study conducted by researchers in the UPV/EHU’s Culture, Cognition and Emotion (CCE) group addresses the question of whether emotional tears can elicit solidarity, including the offering of emotional and instrumental support, towards members of other groups, such as immigrants or asylum seekers. "People often want to help those who are crying. But are members of the host society more willing to help immigrants when they see these tearful images?" asks Magdalena Bobowik, a member of the CCE group during the research and now an external collaborator of the group. This is the first study dealing with the social effects of emotional tears carried out in the context of interculturality, "the first piece of research to show that these emotional signals can change the host society's responses to immigrants", she added.

Using standardised images of emotional displays, they conducted three experiments with 546 adults. "Compared with expressions without tears (i.e. neutral and sad ones), observers perceived the tearful immigrant as warmer but not less competent.” Bobowik went on to point out that “they also felt more compassion (but not discomfort) and were more willing to offer the immigrant emotional support (i.e. reaching out and comforting) and instrumental support (i.e. donating money to an organisation that helps immigrants, but not offering their time)”.

 “We have shown that tears are a universal bonding signal that conveys warmth, arouses compassion (but also anger) and increases intentions to offer emotional consolation and instrumental help to an immigrant in need through monetary donations,” explained Nekane Basabe, professor of Social Psychology at the UPV/EHU. “Images of immigrants shedding tears trigger similar responses towards those of members of one's own group."

Social responses are influenced by audiovisual content

According to Basabe, "understanding the effects of non-verbal communication, including the expression of emotions, among members of disadvantaged groups can be particularly crucial in combating discrimination and prejudice".

In Bobowik's view, "this research is a starting point for understanding how exposure to emotional audiovisual content influences the way we view and react towards members of ethnic and other social minorities. It is my hope that our research will make us reflect on the fact that the media can choose the specific expression or emotion with which to represent members of certain minority groups, and that these representations are translated into specific social responses”.

Additional information

This study was carried out in collaboration with the University of Utrecht (Netherlands), Jagiellonian University (Poland) and the New School of Social Research (USA).

Bibliographic reference