Survey research consistently shows that people tend to have a poor view of migrants. It’s unpalatable but psychologically-speaking, it’s no great surprise. After all, the odds are stacked against new-comers: most of us display inherent biases against people who we perceive to be in a different social group from our own – the so-called ‘out group bias’ – together with a similar aversion to people who are members of a social minority. Migrants usually fit both these descriptions.
Now Mark Rubin and colleagues have tested a third, even more elemental reason for prejudice against migrants, one that has to do with what’s known as ‘cognitive fluency’. People generally favour things that they find easy to process, as demonstrated, for example, by their preference for investing in companies with easy-to-pronounce names and their fear of chemicals with gobbledygook labels. Rubin and his colleagues argue that, in a purely abstract way, there’s something cognitively awkward when it comes to thinking about the notion of migrants, and this mental difficulty biases us against them. ‘An Algerian who has moved to the United States would be more difficult to process than an Algerian who is living in Algeria,’ they wrote.
The researchers recruited hundreds of students to perform various thought experiments. The students imagined a group of people in a room and that this first group was divided arbitrarily into two smaller groups, A and B, with a minority of each group then sent to the other group. The group swappers were the ‘migrants’. The researchers balanced out the effects of out-group and minority bias by asking the participants to imagine they were themselves either in the migrating group, control group, or not involved. They next asked the students to rate the character of a typical control group member (one who stayed in his or her original group) and a typical migrant (who’d swapped groups), and then they asked the students to rate how easy they’d found it to think about members of the different groups.
Students who guessed the purpose of the study were excluded from further analysis. The key result: despite the abstract nature of the task, the students rated migrating group members more negatively than control group members and this was partly because they’d found it more difficult to think about the migrants compared with the control members. This effect also worked backwards: there was some evidence that the students found it more difficult to think about migrating group members because they’d rated them more negatively. A second study showed that group members who were excluded from their original group, rather than swapped to another group, were also rated negatively and described as awkward to think about.
The researchers said their finding showed prejudice against migrants can partly be explained by the cognitive awkwardness of thinking about a person who lives in one place but hails from another. ‘An obvious next step in this line of research is to investigate the influence of processing fluency on evaluations of migrants in the real world,’ the researchers said.
Rubin, M., Paolini, S., & Crisp, R. (2010). A processing fluency explanation of bias against migrants. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), 21-28 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.006