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On Immigration Polls, a Lot of People Lie

UC Berkeley sociologist Alexander Janus says social desirability pressures cause some liberals to lie about their true opinion on immigration — even when asked in an anonymous poll.
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A Gallup survey taken last year found 45 percent believe immigration in the United States should be decreased, compared to 17 percent saying it should be increased and 34 percent saying it should be kept at present levels. But should such figures be taken at face value? University of California, Berkeley, sociologist Alexander Janus argues not. Using a polling technique designed to uncover hidden bias, he concluded about 61 percent of Americans support a cutoff of immigration. Janus, who published his findings in the journal Social Science Quarterly, argues that "social desirability pressures" lead many on the left to lie about their true opinion on immigration — even when asked in an anonymous poll. In an interview, he discussed the survey he conducted in late 2005 and early 2006:

THE SURVEY: "The survey participants were first split into two similar groups. Individuals in one of the groups were presented with three concepts — 'The federal government increasing assistance to the poor,' 'Professional athletes making millions of dollars per year,' and 'Large corporations polluting the environment' — and asked how many of the three they opposed. Individuals in the second group were given the same three items as individuals in the first group, plus an immigration item: 'Cutting off immigration to the United States.' They were asked how many of the four they opposed. The difference in the average number of items named between the two groups can be attributed to opposition to the immigration item. The list experiment is superior to traditional questioning techniques in the sense that survey participants are never required to reveal to the interviewer their true attitudes or feelings."

WHAT IT REVEALED: "The most remarkable finding is that levels of opposition to immigration appear to be very similar across the population — much more similar than public opinion polls would lead one to believe. Support for immigration restrictionism is just as high among liberals, Democrats and college graduates as it is among conservatives and less-educated respondents. I estimated that about 6 in 10 college graduates and more than 6 in 10 liberals hide their opposition to immigration when asked directly, using traditional survey measures."

WHY PEOPLE LIE TO SURVEY TAKERS: "Social scientists call it 'social desirability pressure.' Some people worry about offending the interviewer. ... Other people are concerned with how their information will be used by a survey research organization. They worry about the privacy of their data, which can be a legitimate concern. They want to give a response that would be appealing to their community if it was ever revealed.

HOW ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION AFFECTS ATTITUDES TOWARD IMMIGRATION IN GENERAL: "I didn't specify legal or illegal immigration. So these results may not be as bleak as they first seem. The more the issue of illegal immigration dominates the immigration debate, opposition to the generic immigration question will continue to be very high. It may benefit true progressives on the immigration issue to make some concessions on that front, in line with public opinion, and focus more on building support for legal immigration."

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