Maybe arguing about immigration isn't totally hopeless after all

Here’s a cool new paper. It tests whether people are willing to substantially shift their opinions about immigration policy when they’re given more information about it. The results suggest that people may be doing less ‘motivated reasoning’ about immigration policy than many think, and that there’s real value in trying to highlight the facts to the public.

I’ve written before about why people oppose immigration – whether it’s because they believe that immigrants threaten their incomes, safety, or way of life, or because they just don’t like immigrants and want less of them for more emotional reasons. Simply asking them is unlikely to give us the truth, because people who simply dislike immigrants will tend to give a more reasonable-sounding reason (they may not even be aware that they are doing this). This paper tests this by looking at whether people’s responses change when they have new information that might make them less hostile to immigrants.

First, it looks at the Transatlantic Trends Survey, which polled 19,000 people in 13 different countries and, among other things, asked whether they thought there were too many immigrants in their country. People almost always overestimate the proportion of their country’s population that are immigrants, in the UK by a factor of two. But, here, half of the respondents were told the true proportion. The prediction is that if people are motivated reasoners, learning that there are far fewer immigrants than they may have believed should not change their view. If they are hostile because they believe that immigrants threaten their jobs or way of life, then information that contradicts that should result in less hostile answers.

In most countries surveyed, especially in the UK, the ‘treatment’ group that was given the correct figure gave substantially less anti-immigrant responses than the ‘control’ group that was not given any figure. In the UK there was an 18 percentage point gap, which was the difference between a majority saying there were too many immigrants among the group that wasn’t given the correct numbers and a minority in the group that was.

Interestingly, the gap seems related to the total size of the opposition to immigration – countries with smaller proportions of people saying there were too many immigrants also saw smaller percentage drops when the correct figures were provided, which is consistent with opposition being made up of two groups – one ‘hardcore’ group opposed no matter what the facts are, one group whose views are up for grabs. Further research needed!

The second part of the study was based on a poll of Americans who were given information not just about the proportion of the country that are immigrants, but their characteristics – their propensity to commit crimes or be imprisoned compared to natives, their English-speaking rate, their unemployment rates and how many of them were illegal versus legal. Again, this had a pretty big effect (0.25 of a standard deviation) in changing people’s attitudes and beliefs about immigrants for the better, though they were much less likely to shift policy positions.

Maybe this was just a temporary effect? Four weeks later, there was very little change in either group’s responses. The new information actually stuck!

Now, here’s the really encouraging bit, for me: right-wingers moved most strongly towards more pro-immigrant positions when given this new information, in terms of their attitudes and their policy preferences.

The paper isn't perfect, for example because giving new information might prompt people to give more 'politically correct' pro-immigration answers. But it's a start. 

This all suggests two things to me that are very encouraging. One is that ideas, debate and new information really can change people’s mind. Obviously that’s not exactly easy, because why should Joe Bloggs believe your ‘facts’ and not the other guy’s? But it does mean there’s hope and we might not all be motivated reasoners – indeed my suspicion is that it’s elites who are the most dogmatic, and normal people are far more open-minded, though less well informed. It’s a vindication of that handful of people (like KCL’s Jonathan Portes and the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh) who stick to the facts in the public immigration debate and challenge those who don’t. I tried doing this last week as well.

The other is that the lowest-hanging fruit in arguing for a more liberal stance on immigration could be in talking to the right more. Say there are people who are right-wing in general, but not necessarily hardcore anti-immigrationists, they get their information from right-wing news sources, which also make anti-immigration factual claims and arguments, and the opposite is true on the left. If that's the case, we would expect that there are more ‘mistaken’ right-wingers than left-wingers, and so more people on the right who might be persuaded to take a different view.

That’s consistent with the results of this paper, and it is an encouragement of immigration-liberal right-wingers to make that case to their friends and allies who disagree. It might not be as hopeless as you think.