Prejudice Against Migrants: Is It Because They're Too Hard to Think About?

In some recent research, my colleagues and I showed that bias against migrants is related to how easy people find it to think about migrants.

We asked research participants to imagine a situation in which people were randomly divided into two very abstract social groups called “Group A” and “Group B”. Participants then imagined that, through a process of random selection, some people stayed in their original group (i.e., non-migrant individuals) and some people changed to the other group (i.e., migrants). Surprisingly, even under these artificial conditions, participants were biased against people who changed groups. They rated migrants as possessing fewer positive qualities (e.g., honest, attractive, friendly) and more negative qualities (e.g., unintelligent, aggressive, rude) than people who stayed in their original group. In addition, people who found it difficult to think about migrants showed a stronger bias than people who found it easy to think about migrants.
These findings suggest that migrant bias may be related to the ease or difficulty that people have in thinking about migrants: People may not like migrants, in part, because they find them more difficult to process cognitively.

For example, consider a Mexican man who is living in Mexico and who then moves to live in America (although it could be anyone who moves from their home country to go to live in another country). To begin with, the Mexican is located in a predictive context – Mexico– and so people find him
 easy to think about or cognitively process. However, after he has moved to America, he becomes a migrant and his residence in America puts him in a nonpredictive context which makes him relatively difficult to process.

Our research suggests that these sorts of differences in cognitive processing fluency may be at least partly responsible for bias against migrants: People may dislike migrants partly because they find them more difficult to process. This area of research is in its infancy, and an obvious next step is to investigate whether our results generalize from abstract, laboratory-based migrants to migrants in the real world.

For further information, please see the following journal article:

Rubin, M., Paolini, S., & Crisp, R. J. (2010). A processing fluency explanation of bias against migrants. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 21-28. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.006

A self-archived version of this journal article is available here.

This research was supported by the Australian Research Council's Discovery Projects funding scheme (Project DP0556908). However, the views expressed above are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council.