There has been a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and many European countries. A large proportion of their populations views immigration as one of the most pressing issues facing their country. For instance, more than three quarters of British citizens want to reduce immigration (Blinder 2015), while more than 40% of Americans are dissatisfied with the level of immigration in the US (Gallup 2016). Political parties and politicians who tapped into these concerns, such as the Front National in France and Donald Trump in the US, have gained a lot of support in the last few years.
Survey data suggests that voters are often misinformed about basic facts on immigration. For example, people consistently overestimate the proportion of immigrants in their country (Sides and Citrin 2008, Hopkins et al. 2016). In the US, on average people think that 37% of the population are immigrants, whereas the true figure is only 13%. In a recent paper, we tackle this question by gathering both cross-country evidence from several OECD countries as well as conducting two online experiments in the US (Grigorieff et al. 2016). Our results indicate that exposure to information can durably shift people’s attitudes towards immigrants, but that information is less effective in shifting policy preferences.
We analyse a large cross-country survey experiment conducted in 13 countries around the world, including the US, Canada, Russia, and several European countries. In the survey, half the 19,000 respondents were told the proportion of immigrants in their country before being asked whether they thought that there were too many immigrants. The other half did not receive any information about the proportion of immigrants in their country, but they were asked the same question.
We find that people who were told the exact percentage of immigrants in their country were significantly less likely to say that there are too many immigrants. We show the evidence from the cross-country experiment in Figure 1.
Figure 1 Percentage of respondents reporting too many immigrants
Respondents in the treatment group do not report being less worried about immigration in general, however, and do not shift their policy preferences. This evidence on the limited effect of information on policy preferences is in line with work by Hopkins et al. (2016) who showed that informing people about the share of immigrants in the US did not alter their policy preferences.
Previous studies only provided information about the proportion of immigrants, and not about their characteristics, which could explain the lack of effect that information has on attitudes towards immigrants and policy preferences. People care deeply about the kind of immigrants living in their country (Hainmueller and Hopkins 2014, Bansak et al. 2016). They often have very inaccurate beliefs on the crime rate of immigrants, their ability to speak the local language, and their integration in society more generally. It is therefore important to understand whether more comprehensive information could change people’s opinions of immigrants, and affect policy preferences about immigration. We conducted additional experiments to test this hypothesis in the US.
Approximately 1,200 respondents from a representative online panel, and 800 respondents from an online convenience sample, were asked to estimate a range of statistics about immigrants, such as the unemployment rate, the incarceration rate, the share of immigrants able to speak English, and the share of legal and illegal immigrants.
Half the sample was then provided with the correct figures followed by a questionnaire on their beliefs about immigrants, and their policy preferences regarding immigration. We also obtained two behavioural measures of their attitude towards immigrants, first by asking them how much money they want to donate to a pro-immigrant charity, and then by asking them whether they were willing to sign a real petition on the White House website in favour of increasing the number of available green cards.
We also gathered evidence using a follow-up survey four weeks after the main experiment to examine whether information could durably shift people’s attitudes and policy preferences.
Highly biased beliefs
People had highly biased beliefs about immigrants (Figure 2). People overestimated the share of immigrants (estimated 33% compared to the correct figure of 13%), the share of illegal immigrants (25% and 3%), the unemployment rate among immigrants (24% and 6%), the incarceration rate among immigrants (17% and 2%) and the share of immigrants not speaking English (36% and 8%). We also showed that people’s posteriors are strongly affected by information.
Figure 2 Beliefs about immigrants in representative sample
We find that the information treatment improved people’s opinion of immigrants, and that it moderately increased the willingness to donate money to a pro-immigrant charity. People in the treatment group also became slightly more willing to increase the number of legal immigrants, which was completely driven by Republican respondents. Respondents’ policy preferences about illegal immigrants remained, on average, unchanged. We also find that participants who received information were not more likely to sign the petition in favour of increasing the number of green cards, and were as likely to be in favour of deporting all illegal immigrants as the control group (Figure 3). This indicates that, while providing information can change how people perceive immigrants, it might not be enough to significantly change their policy preferences.
Figure 3 Effects of information treatment
In our follow-up survey with the online convenience sample, we asked participants the same set of self-reported questions on immigration as the ones they answered in the main experiment. We find that the treatment effects were very similar four weeks after the treatment. Participants who received the information four weeks earlier remembered it, had a more positive opinion of immigrants, and more supported increasing the number of legal immigrants. Their policy preferences regarding illegal immigrants, however, remained unchanged.
Democrats versus Republicans
Across all samples, we found evidence that people who identified as right-wing, and who have more negative views on immigration, responded more strongly to the information treatment. In our US samples, we found that participants who self-identified as Republicans developed a more positive opinion of immigrants and became more likely to support pro-immigrant policies – even four weeks after they received the information treatment. Figure 4 shows the effects of the information treatment on policy preferences for respondents who self-identified as Republicans and Democrats.
Figure 4 Heterogenous effects for Democrats and Republicans
In the cross-country experiment, respondents who self-identified as right-wing also changed their attitudes more strongly after being told the share of immigrants in their country, compared to people who did not identify as right-wing.
Information can change attitudes to immigrants
Overall, it appears that information about immigration can affect people’s attitude towards immigrants, consistent with another recent study with a sample from Japan (Facchini et al. 2016). Our research has potentially important policy implications. Governments, news organisations, or NGOs could disseminate information about immigrants to reduce biases. Results on the heterogeneous effects of information suggest that targeting certain subgroups of the population could increase the effectiveness of interventions. Specifically, our findings indicate that targeting individuals with the most negative views on immigration would be the most effective way of changing people’s attitudes towards immigrants.
Editor’s note: This paper is funded under the grant “Policy Design and Evaluation Research in Developing Countries" Initial Training Network (PODER), which is funded under the Marie Curie Actions of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (Contract Number: 608109).
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