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Immigration has become central to political contestation in many receiving countries, marked by the proliferation of highly polarized views that are often embedded in subjective perception rather than objective reality [1]. As a consequence, many people harbour beliefs about immigration that are erroneous or fallacious. These misperceptions may range from simple overestimations of the number of immigrants in their country [2] to elaborate conspiracy theories such as the Grand Remplacement, the idea that native Europeans are intentionally replaced with immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Put simply: people are often wrong about immigration. Yet being wrong this often is anything but unproblematic, for it undermines one’s ability to form balanced opinions on the issue. In this brief contribution, we explore the reasons why these misperceptions are so common.

 

One important first insight is that holding false beliefs and having misperceptions is something that should not surprise us at all. In fact, there is an abundance of research which suggests that people prefer interpretations of the world that align with their pre-existent beliefs [3], and even regards such directionally motivated reasoning as the default way of seeking and processing information [4]. It is selected and processed following one’s desired outcome rather than empirical evidence. However, there is still considerable variation with regard to the extent of biased reasoning. Misperceptions may seem ubiquitous in some areas, yet hardly noticeable in others. We argue that immigration is particularly prone to them, and suggest that one needs to investigate its issue characteristics to understand what motivates them. Following the insight that anti-immigration views originate in feelings and experiences of threat [5] and drawing on a wide and transdisciplinary array of scholarly literature, we identify three distinct threat types that provide motivations to engage in biased reasoning about immigration: (1) a cultural threat to social identity; (2) an economic threat from resource competition, and (3) a security threat pivoting on an alleged loss of control. These threats are subjective sentiments that motivate the selection of and belief in negative information about immigration, as we will discuss in the remainder of this contribution.

The cultural threat arises from the conflict between the identity of a certain ingroup (natives) and the disruptive presence of an outgroup (immigrants) that is perceived as threatening said identity [6]. Since most people share the sentiment that their ingroup is positively distinct from any outgroup, they may be consequently tempted to process information in a biased manner and reject what they consider dangerous for the maintenance of this sentiment. The aim to protect one’s social identity is in this perspective the motivation for biased reasoning. 

 

The economic threat references the concept of group competition [7] and posits that negative perceptions of immigrants are prefigured by the notion that there is a competition for resources between them and natives. In this view, immigration is seen as detrimental to one’s own material interests such as securing employment and stable wages with the competition resembling a zero-sum game: whenever one wins, the other loses. Most prominently, immigrants entering the labour market are perceived as taking low-skilled jobs away from natives and deteriorating their employment conditions. This notion of inter-group competition may promote and reinforce a range of misperceptions, particularly on the socio-economic impact that immigration has on receiving societies. 

The security threat refers to perceptions that immigration endangers physical integrity and public safety. Fears of irregular migration and immigrant crime are a widespread political concern in many countries and immigrants are often viewed as a transnational security challenge [8]. Impressions of insufficient state authority to contain immigration-related crime and unresponsive political elites that pursue liberal policies [9] against the will of the median voter [10] can reinforce and deepen feelings of control loss. This may particularly explain common misperceptions about immigration governance and immigrant deviance. 

In short: people are susceptible to misperceptions about immigration. We argue that the reason for this can be found in different threats that form the basis for directionally motivated reasoning. Casting light on these threats and their respective contexts may allow us to gain insights into the mechanisms responsible for the spread of immigration misperceptions and anti-immigrant sentiments. Any attempt to address misperceptions should therefore aim to reduce threat perceptions and build inclusive social identities. 

Notes and References

[1] See exemplarily Blinder, Scott. 2015. ‘Imagined Immigration: The Impact of Different Meanings of “Immigrants” in Public Opinion and Policy Debates in Britain’. Political Studies, 63, 80-100. 

[2] See exemplarily the research of Daniel Herda, in particular ‘How many immigrants? Foreign-Born Population Innumeracy in Europe’ (2010). Public Opinion Quarterly, 74(4), 674-695.

[3] See Nyhan, Brendan, and Reifler, Jason. 2019. ‘The roles of information deficit and identity threat in the prevalence of misperceptions’. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties, 29(2), 222-244. 

[4] See Flynn, D. J.; Nyhan, Brendan; and Reifler, Jason. 2017. ‘The Nature and Origins of Misperceptions: Understanding False and Unsupported Beliefs About Politics’. Advances in Political Psychology, 38(1), 127-150.

[5] See exemplarily Hainmueller, Jens, and Hopkins, Daniel J. 2014. ‘Public Attitudes Toward Immigration’. Annual Review of Political Science, 17, 225-249. 

[6] See Tajfel, Henri and Turner, John. ‘An integrative theory of intergroup conflict’, in Austin, William, and Worchel, Stephen (eds.). 1979. The social psychology of intergroup relations. Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole, 33-47.

[7] See Semyonov, Moshe; Raijman, Rebecca; and Gorodzeisky, Anastasia. 2008. ‘Foreigners’ Impact on European Societies. Public Views and Perceptions in a Cross-National Comparative Perspective’. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 49(1), 5-29; and Quillian, Lincoln. 1995. ‘Prejudice as a Response to Perceived Group Threat’. American Sociological Review, 60(4), 586-611.

[8] See Lahav, Gallya, and Courtemanche, Marie. 2012. ‘The Ideological Effects of Framing Threat on Immigration and Civil Liberties’. Political Behavior, 34, 477–505.

[9] See Lutz, Philipp. 2019. ‘Reassessing the gap hypothesis: tough talk and weak action in migration policy?’ Party Politics, Online first.

[10] Sides, John, and Citrin, Jack. 2007. ‘European Opinion about Immigration: The Role of Identities, Interest and Information’. British Journal of Political Science, 37(3), 477-504.

Philipp Lutz

Philipp Lutz is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Geneva and a research fellow of the NCCR – on the move. Previously, he was a PhD researcher at the University of Bern and a visiting researcher at the European University Institute (EUI). His main research interest lies in understanding the political consequences of international migration and covers comparative politics as well as international governance. 

Marco Bitschnau

Marco Bitschnau holds a B.A. in Sociology, Politics, and Economics from Zeppelin University, an MPhil in Sociology from the University of Cambridge, and a Certificate in International Affairs and Strategy from Sciences Po Paris. He has interned in Berlin, Saint Petersburg and New York, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Neuchâtel as well as a research fellow of the NCCR - on the move. 

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