Do People Care About Foreigners?

by Varun Gauri

Do most people care a whit about foreigners? Would they be willing to reduce their own countries’ well-being for the benefit of foreign nationals? Global cooperation entails a variety of incentive-compatible deals among nation-states, but it rests, ultimately, on cosmopolitan values. If people can’t be bothered with the citizens of other countries, the prospect for long-term, stable solutions to crises like climate change, pandemic diseases, migration, and trade policy may be bleak. 

In series of large, representative surveys from Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Japan, the United States, Colombia, and Guatemala, my recent paper with Xuechunzi Bai and Susan Fiske finds more support for moral cosmopolitanism than a quick scan of the news headlines might lead one to suspect. 

Broadly speaking, respondents everywhere distinguish preventing harm to foreign citizens, which almost everyone supports, from redistributing resources, which about half of respondents endorse. These two psychological dimensions of moral cosmopolitanism, equitable security (preventing harm) and equitable benefits (redistributing resources), are correlated with attitudes toward contested international policies, such as support for international organizations, reducing a nation’s carbon footprint, enforcing anti-bribery rules, and expanding international migration. The equitable benefits dimensions also predicts the likelihood of sending real resources to international, rather than domestic, NGOs, as well as support for the global distribution of masks to fight Covid-19. The equitable security dimension predicts responses to a thought experiment protecting foreigners, as well as support for vaccinating the world against Covid-19. In short, people tend to temper their altruism with a dose of moral parochialism, or patriotism, when redistributing benefits, but they are moral altruists when preventing harms. 

Notably, moral cosmopolitanism is not correlated with standard demographic variables, such as age, race, and sex, and only weakly so with political ideology. Populism, then, might significantly be a supply-side phenomenon, in which political entrepreneurs are monopolizing the airwaves and the agenda, rather than a program that people deeply require or demand. In the privacy of their own computer screens, in the absence of the screaming pundits, people behave like moral cosmopolitans. 

Are there ways to elicit moral cosmopolitanism? We developed a computational linguistic model to identify the concepts that respondents used when donating in a cosmopolitan versus a parochial manner. Cosmopolitans tended to employ terms like “world” and “both” while moral patriots mentioned concepts like “first,” “USA,” and “charity.” We then found that making the global concepts salient and psychologically accessible increased the share of respondents exhibiting cosmopolitan behavior by 14 percentage points. One can elicit moral cosmopolitanism, at least in the very short term.  

As noted, this might be a surprising finding, given the march of populism and nationalism across the world. But perhaps it ought not be. Human beings are by nature altruistic.We all endorse reciprocity. People everywhere are empathic. In intergroup prisoner’s dilemma games, participants most often choose the option that benefits their in-group without harming the out-group, rather than the option that benefits the in-group and harms the out-group. Our findings are also consistent with an account in which proscriptive morality (avoiding others, negative rights) is more intuitive, and more forceful, than prescriptive morality (approaching others, positive rights).

What does this mean for how we frame global cooperation? First, it is better to emphasize avoiding harm rather than redistributing benefits. There would seem to be broad support for policies to avoid harming foreign nationals, such as reducing foreign bribery, exploiting foreign workers, and avoiding civilian casualties. It might be more effective to talk about climate change, trade policies, global poverty reduction, and global health in similar terms. Because many rich country policies contribute to those problems, it shouldn’t be hard to talk that way. Second, international organizations might consider reducing the use of national rankings, commonly used to motivate governmental behavior in domains from doing business to supporting development assistance, because those might also be reinforcing patriotic rather than cosmopolitan frames. Third, the discourse of charity, which emphasizes the pride of the giver rather than the dignity of all, could be replaced with a language of equality or fairness.  

Despite the march of populism, human beings remain potential cosmopolitans. In the context of the many intergroup moral problems the world faces — restrictions on refugees, climate change, pandemics, regulation of global trade, the public good of global scientific collaboration — our research may offer some hope that the human capacity for reasoned judgment may be up to the challenge.