Misperceptions drive immigration politics and undermine democracy

Most people hold deep-seated misperceptions about immigration, painting its nature, effects, and governance in excessively dark colours. Their mistaken beliefs are rooted in concerns about threatening 'others', and can prove hard to correct. Marco Bitschnau and Philipp Lutz argue this is highly problematic for democracies

In politics, perceptions are everything. Beliefs are more relevant than facts, imagination triumphs over reality, appearance takes precedence over substance... All this manifests in various ways on the political stage. Yet, in some cases – more often than one might assume – these perceptions are incompatible with the best available evidence. In these cases, we usually speak of misperceptions rather than perceptions.

Immigration misperceptions are the norm

One issue particularly prone to such misperceptions is immigration. Our recent review article shows just how many people hold a broad range of inaccurate beliefs on different aspects of the subject.

For instance, people tend to overestimate the proportion of immigrants in their neighbourhood and country. They also make incorrect assumptions about immigrants' religion or educational background, and wrongly believe that immigrants put considerable strain on public welfare.

Some people even fall for conspiracy theories. One typical theory is that there is an intentional replacement of the native European population with immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.

The most remarkable feature about immigration misperceptions is their strong and consistent negativity bias

We find these, and other immigration misperceptions, across all continents and population segments. They are, however, usually less common among liberal-minded and highly-educated people. Perhaps their most remarkable feature is that they carry a strong and consistent negativity bias. People see immigration in a more negative light (and its implications as more disadvantageous) than the evidence suggests.

How feelings of threat fuel misperceptions

Clearly, this bias is not the result of random deviations (which we may expect from uninformed citizens) but is directional. So where, exactly, does it stem from? According to the attitudinal literature, the default reaction of a (native) ingroup to the presence of an (immigrant) outgroup is to feel threatened. Consequently, natives who experience this feel pressure to protect their group identity, defend their economic interests, and avert potential security risks.

Misperceptions about immigration are notoriously difficult to correct. People tend to stick to them even after they learn the facts

Native populations' concerns about immigrants disrespecting majoritarian norms, taking away jobs, and engaging in criminal activity causes them to zero in only on negative messages about immigration. Given that misperceptions emanate from this deeply entrenched aversion, they are notoriously difficult to correct. Often, people cling to their mistaken beliefs even after they have been exposed to the facts; their hard-wired biases against immigrants makes them reluctant to accept new information.

Immigration misperceptions are bad for democracy

This alone would be of limited relevance if misperceptions were just another psychological peculiarity. But they are also problematic from a democratic perspective.

Misperceptions distort our beliefs and prevent us processing factual information accurately (crucial for democratic deliberation). Thus, they exacerbate polarisation and impair efforts to find common ground across political divides. It is hard to agree on a solution if one can't agree about the nature and scope of the problem. And it is even harder to agree on a solution if a significant part of the population holds views that are detached from reality.

Misconceptions about immigration exacerbate polarisation and shape social and political responses, which may be discriminatory or ineffective

Moreover, the negativity-bias of immigration misperceptions also shapes social and political responses to the issue. At worst, this can lead to yet more discrimination, and inflict avoidable harm on immigrants and their communities. Numerous misperceptions also give rise to ineffective policies that reinforce a dangerous sense of crisis and control loss.

So what can be done to address this challenge? How can we combat misperceptions?

What democracies can do

Unfortunately, the answer is anything but clear. Although fact-checking and myth-busting are still the most common counter-strategies, they have yielded rather limited success, at least in cases in which policymakers have not considered the underlying motivation for misperceptions (i.e., the affective threat from immigration). Instead of relying on such strategies, it may prove more fruitful to promote discourses that mitigate the perceived differences between the native population and immigrants, implement policies that foster inter-group contact, and champion immigrant inclusion in society.

We should, however, beware of being overconfident. No panacea exists that can overturn misperceptions immigration overnight. Because they reflect deep-seated fears and anxieties, such mistaken beliefs are likely to remain a central part of immigration politics for the foreseeable future.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Marco Bitschnau Marco Bitschnau PhD Candidate, Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies, University of Neuchâtel More by this author
photograph of Philipp Lutz Philipp Lutz Assistant Professor, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam More by this author

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