Some would say that the political events currently convulsing the globe have been driven, at least in part, by widespread prejudice towards immigrants. To begin healing divisions, it would help if we understood more about how such prejudices can be passed from one generation to the next, so that we might intervene to stop this happening. To that end, a new study in the British Journal of Psychology has tracked the immigrant attitudes of over 500 Swedish teenagers over a six year period, to see how their attitudes changed over time, and if and how they might be related to the prejudices held by their parents and friends.
Marta Miklikowska first surveyed the immigrant attitudes, friendships and empathy levels of the teenagers in 2010 when their average age was 13, and then measured their attitudes toward immigrants again in 2012 and 2014. At the start of the study only, she also surveyed the immigrant attitudes of the teenagers’ parents and peers. The survey included items like, “Immigrants often come here just to take advantage of welfare in Sweden” and participants rated how strongly they agreed or disagreed.
Overall, Miklikowska found that the teenagers’ prejudice towards immigrants increased in early adolescence, and then reduced in mid adolescence. The results suggested that parental prejudice may have a particularly lasting influence: teens with more prejudiced parents were more likely to display increasing negative attitudes toward immigrants through the study. In contrast, having more prejudiced peers was only associated with increasing prejudice in early adolescence, suggesting that the influence of peers diminishes over time. Note thought that this might be because the teen participants’ peer group had changed by the later stages of the study (remember peer prejudice was only surveyed at the beginning).
In the earlier surveys, those teenagers who had prejudiced parents but who also had their own immigrant friends did not show increases in their prejudice over time. This suggests having immigrant friends had a protective effect, but only in early adolescence, again perhaps because these friendships changed later in the study. Intriguingly, whether or not teenagers had immigrant friends at the beginning of the study did not appear to be related to the levels of their parents’ prejudice.
Looking at how parents and peers prejudices might shape teenagers’ own attitudes, the study suggested that empathy might be a key mechanism. Teenagers with more prejudiced parents and/or peers tended to report lower levels of empathic concern for other people in general (though there was no association with their levels of non-emotional perspective taking). Miklikowska suggested that “prejudiced parents and peers might constitute empathy-impeding environments”, which could contribute towards the formation of negative immigrant attitudes in teenagers.
Socioeconomic background and parental education were also relevant. Teenagers from poorer backgrounds and with less educated parents tended to report greater prejudice towards immigrants.
All the above discussion, especially talk of parents and peers shaping teenagers’ own attitudes, comes with a huge caveat. Although the longitudinal aspect of the research is a strength, the methodology was purely observational, so the apparent associations between teenagers’ attitudes and those of their parents and peers might not be causal. Interpreting social research of this kind is also complicated by inevitable genetic influences at play. If a teenager of prejudiced parents displays increasing prejudice of his or her own, it’s possible, perhaps likely, that this is at least in part because they share the same genetic dispositions toward empathy and prejudice as their parents.
Despite these caveats, there is a dearth of longitudinal research into the formation of prejudiced attitudes in teenagers, so Miklikowska’s study therefore makes an important contribution. Indeed, she believes her findings could help inform anti-prejudice programmes. “The fact that intergroup friendships [i.e. having friends who are immigrants] are independent of parent prejudice while they buffer against its effects encourages the use of intergroup contact in programmes targeting youth with prejudiced parents,” she said. The tendency for teens with more prejudiced parents and peers to show lower empathy levels also suggests another possible avenue for intervention – perhaps fostering greater empathy skills could buffer teens against the influence of any prejudices swirling around their social circle.