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Perceived Threat Drives Anti-Immigrant Bias

New research finds fears of a major demographic shift can evoke anger, which, in turn, produces prejudice.
Donald Trump pulls a supporter from a crowd at a rally on March 13th, 2016, in Bloomington, Illinois.

Donald Trump pulls a supporter from a crowd at a rally on March 13th, 2016, in Bloomington, Illinois.

It has been clear for some time that America is gradually morphing into a minority-majority nation. More recently, an influx of immigrants from the Middle East led some to wonder whether something similar is happening in Europe.

Analysts have long wondered whether the specter of dramatic demographic change played a role in the two bombshell elections of 2016, which produced President Donald Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom. New research suggests that, to the extent both wins were driven by anti-immigrant sentiment, it did indeed.

It finds informing people their traditionally dominant racial group will, at some point, no longer hold that distinction produces a variety of negative emotions. These unpleasant feelings stimulate prejudicial thoughts, which, in turn, inspire anti-immigrant activity—including voting for candidates with xenophobic agendas.

In the European Journal of Social Psychology, a research team led by psychologist Lee Shepherd of Northumbria University demonstrates this dynamic in two studies—one in Great Britain, the other in Italy.

The first featured 222 white British participants, all students or staff members at a U.K. university. All were accurately informed that immigrants currently compose 10.8 percent of the nation's population.

Half then read that "if current trends continue, in 40 years there may be more immigrants in the U.K. than British people." The other half were told the percentage of immigrants will increase only a small amount over the next four decades.

All participants then reported the degree to which they feel fear, anger, and angst when thinking about immigration. The latter emotion was measured by their level of agreement with statements such as "I feel anxious about the future of British culture."

Prejudice toward immigrants was measured by their responses to 13 statements, such as "Immigrants are generally not very intelligent." Finally, participants reported how likely they were to engage in three nativism-inspired activities, including voting for a political candidate who is uninterested in improving immigrants' living conditions.

"Believing that immigrants pose a threat to the majority group increased the aversive emotions felt toward this group," the researchers report. "These emotions then positively predicted prejudice, which in turn predicted (engaging in anti-immigrant actions)."

With a few minor variations, this dynamic was replicated in the Italian sample. A similar study of Americans would be welcome, but there's no reason to believe the results would be significantly different.

These findings have urgent practical implications. "The key to successful reconciliation," the researchers write, "entails alleviating the initial threat that groups perceive themselves to be facing."

That would presumably involve educating people about the vital role immigrants play in growing the economy (as opposed to the false notion that they unfairly "take" jobs from natives), and pointing out how quickly and thoroughly most assimilate into American culture. (In theory, this should be easier here than in European nations where citizenship is instinctively linked to a specific ethnicity.)

This research suggests such understanding—which is admittedly not easy to instill—could short-circuit the toxic cycle in which perceived threat creates negative emotions, which inspires prejudice and ultimately influences how we vote. Demographics may be destiny, but even major shifts are problematic only if they are perceived as ominous.