The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Can we overcome public ignorance about immigration?


Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New York.

Widespread political ignorance is a serious problem, and affects public opinion on many issues. Immigration figures prominently on the list of those issues. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump effectively exploited public ignorance about the number of immigrants and their effect on the crime rate. Similar ignorance likely had an impact on the Brexit referendum in Britain. One of the most pernicious aspects of political ignorance is that many people, both right and left, tend to reject new information that conflicts with their preexisting views. Such "motivated reasoning" is particularly likely on emotionally charged issues, such as immigration. That reality makes it difficult to break through misinformation when it does arise. Even otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people tend to process new political information in a highly biased way.

But new research by economists Alexis Grigorieff, Christopher Roth, and Diego Ubfal suggests that combating public ignorance about immigration may not be as hopeless a task as it might seem. Sam Bowman of Britain's Adam Smith Institute summarizes the new findings:

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….

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….

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….

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!

As Bowman notes, the biggest changes were seen in the attitudes of right of center survey respondents, who tend to be the ones most opposed to immigration in the first place.

The study does not show—and I certainly don't claim—that reducing public ignorance about immigration will cause everyone to become as pro-immigration as I am. Far from it. Even if everyone were well-informed, there would still be plenty of room for disagreement.

But increased knowledge would likely make much of the population more favorable to immigration than they themselves otherwise would be. Many anti-immigration attitudes are driven by misinformation about the numbers of immigrants, their supposed propensity to go on welfare, their political views, their impact on the crime rate, and other factors.

While some people are so dug in to their views that no new facts are likely to change their minds, the research discussed by Bowman suggests that many are not. Some people on all sides of the political spectrum are hopelessly biased partisans or bigots. But others just haven't taken the time to explore the relevant evidence or consider opposing points of view.

I am not quite as optimistic as Bowman is. While, new information can potentially change many people's minds, it is often difficult to get voters to take the time to learn it, given that political ignorance is actually rational behavior for most of them. If your only reason to learn about immigration (or any political issue) is to be a better voter, that's not much of an incentive at all, given that the chance of your better-informed vote will influence electoral outcomes is infinitesmally small. When people participate in a survey, the researchers can get them to focus on whatever information they want to present (at least for a time). It's much harder to achieve that in real life, where there are many competing demands on people's time and energy.

Still, the new evidence shows that many people are more open-minded about immigration than most experts might have thought. That's an encouraging sign, even if does not lead us to any quick and easy solution to the problem of public ignorance on this issue.