Skip to main content

Another Reason to Fear Immigrants Is Debunked

Second generation South Asians in London are well on their way to becoming W.E.I.R.D.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: stockofnepal/Shutterstock)

(Photo: stockofnepal/Shutterstock)

Immigration must be stopped to preserve our values! That's the subtext (or, in some cases, text) of much of the rhetoric from the current presidential campaign. Certain candidates are exploiting voters' fears that our nation will soon become unrecognizable, as foreigners arrive bringing fundamentally different attitudes.

This sort of primal anxiety, which is also being expressed in Europe, is not likely to be assuaged by a scientific study. But newly published research from the United Kingdom suggests the deep-seated dread is based on a false premise.

A study of immigrants from Bangladesh living in London finds that, by the second generation, their fundamental attitudes have shifted significantly toward a Western, individualist orientation. Parents take with them the values of their old country, but their kids are a very different matter.

For better or worse, immigrants begin to take on Western values of individualism with remarkable rapidity.

A research team led by Alex Mesoudi of the University of Exeter reports this rapid acculturation is largely attributable to the impact of the much-maligned mass media. Children of immigrants adopt some important values from their parents, but others are absorbed straight from the television.

Research psychologists have become increasingly aware that people from W.E.I.R.D. nations—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic—tend to exhibit a different form of psychological processing than people from other countries. Westerners tend to have a "more individualistic and less collectivist social orientation," the researchers note in the online journal PLoS One, "and more analytic and less holistic cognition."

To determine how and when this shift occurs, Mesoudi and his colleagues conducted a study of 286 residents of East London from three cultural backgrounds: first-generation immigrants from Bangladesh; children of such immigrants who were raised in the U.K.; and non-immigrants whose parents were born and raised in the U.K.

All participants filled out two sets of questionnaires: one focused on demographics, the other designed to measure their psychological orientation. The first included information on their age; religiosity; education; languages spoken; amount of contact with their family; time spent watching television, or reading newspapers and magazines, and surfing the Internet.

In the second, participants indicated their level of agreement with "16 statements indicative of individualism and collectivism," and took other tests designed to measure the strength of their belief in each of those concepts.

One asked whether they viewed an Olympic athlete's decision to take steroids as due more to his "excessive drive to win" (an individualist, Western-style response) or "because athletics had become too competitive" (a more collectivist response, which puts his actions into a broader social context).

Not surprisingly, "First generation British Bangladeshis retained the non-Western social orientation, attributional style, and social closeness of their region of origin," even if they had been living in the U.K. for decades. This supports the idea that there is a "sensitive period of up to 14 years during which culturally variable psychological attributes become set," the researchers write.

But when looking at cultural differences over individualism and collectivism, "the second generation were typically intermediate between non-migrants and the first generation," they report.

Further analysis found that certain of the second generation's values, such as social closeness, were driven by a combination of family contact and media consumption. But their Westernized, individualistic attitudes were "driven primarily by horizontal cultural transmission (e.g., via mass media), with parents and other family members having little or no effect."

The results suggest that humans are "usually good at rapidly adjusting to local conditions via cultural, rather than genetic, evolution," the researchers conclude.

"Rapid psychological acculturation belies common fears that immigrant communities—even large and culturally cohesive communities such as London-based British Bangladeshis—will fail to integrate with wider society due to fundamental differences in ways of thinking."

So relax everybody. For better or worse, immigrants begin to take on Western values of individualism with remarkable rapidity. And by holding on longer to such social values as close families, they might even remind us of some positive impulses we have largely lost sight of.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.