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

  • Alexandra C. Hartman and Benjamin S. Morse


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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Department of Political Science, University College London (email:; Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (email: This project was conducted in collaboration with the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Danish Refugee Council. We thank Greg Kitt, without whose support this project would not have been possible. We also thank David Lamah, Princess Kular and Prince Williams for invaluable research assistance. We received valuable comments from Sebastian Schutte and seminar participants at MIT, the 2015 Households in Conflict Network Conference, the 2014 American Political Science Association annual meeting, the Working Group of African Political Economy and the 2015 Annual Bank Conference on Africa. Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at: and online appendices at



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

  • Alexandra C. Hartman and Benjamin S. Morse


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