Immigration is a complex issue with social, economic, political and cultural dimensions. But it also has a psychological dimension. In particular, one of the reasons why people may hold anti-immigration attitudes is because of a fundamental bias in the way our brains process information. This bias means that migrants may sometimes be disliked simply because they are difficult to think about.

Mark Rubin, Stefania Paolini and I recently conducted some studies that aimed to strip away all the socio-political and economic issues that surround attitudes towards immigration and get down to the purely psychological processes involved. We created an experimental analogue of real world migration in the laboratory using two made-up groups "A" and "B. We then measured how difficult it was for people to think about individuals who moved from the "A" group to the "B" group, and vice-versa.

The idea was simple and based on some emerging work in cognitive psychology. All other things being equal, people prefer to think about things that are "easy on the mind" -- a characteristic called processing fluency. Simply put, our brains are hardwired to like stuff that fits together well. This type of bias is useful in everyday life. It helps us see that that those bright red earmuffs just ain't gonna go with your smart business suit. Or that antique dressing table will stick out like a sore thumb in your jazzy, contemporary new apartment. It's Fish ‘n' Chips rather than Jelly ‘n' Beef. Some things just go well together, they "fit in", and when they do, they're easier for our brains to process. What's more, being basically adaptive organs our brains like things that are easier to process, and dislike things that are harder to process.

What does this mean for social groups? Well, it means that on some fundamental cognitive level it should be easier for us to think about Brits in Britain, Norwegians in Norway, and Algerians in Algeria than any other combination of nationality and nation. To quote our original article, "An Algerian who has moved to the United States would be more difficult to process than an Algerian who is living in Algeria".

In our study we asked a group of undergraduate students to split in to two groups: A and B. We then asked a few members of the A group to join the B group; and a few members of the B group to join the A group. These represented social migrants. When we asked people to say how much they liked each of the people in the groups, on average, they liked people who had not migrated more than people who had.

Ok, just think about this for a moment. This is a completely abstract task. The groups were called "A" and "B". Membership to the groups was totally random. There is no possible economic, political, cultural (or logical) reason why anyone should like anyone in these groups more than anyone else. But on average the participants still liked those who had not migrated more than those who had. In other words, there was a basic cognitive bias against migrants. Simply moving from one category to another was enough, in relative terms, to be disliked.

We also asked participants how difficult they found it to think about either migrants or people who had remained in their original A or B groups. Migrants were reported as being harder to think about, supporting the notion that they were liked less than non-migrants simply because they were more difficult to process.

Although there are undoubtedly many reasons why there is discrimination against migrants, the processing fluency explanation may help us understand something of the psychology underlying these issues.

But there is a final, critical point here. Thinking about migrants and migration may be cognitively difficult, but doing so may be highly beneficial. In fact, this makes a lot of sense given what we know about human adaptability. After all, we're biologically pre-disposed to like high-fat, high-calorie foods but that's hardly a recipe for a healthy life. Similarly, sticking just with what we know - never opening the mind to the experience of other cultures and customs - is a route to rigidity, conservativism, and narrow-mindedness. We may be cognitively pre-disposed to like simplicity, structure, and coherence, but it's people who break the mould who prosper most.

I think of the experience of diversity as like getting physically fit. For most people it's not something that comes easy ... in fact it really hurts early on. But no-one would say it's not worth it in the end. Thinking out of the box; thinking about people who don't "fit in", thinking about those different customs, cultures and perspectives, is a form of mental gymnastics that is bound to benefit.

I'll be talking about these issues more in a forthcoming series of blogs: how pushing oneself to embrace social psychologically challenging situations may yield real benefits for mental adaptability, vigor, health and happiness.


Rubin, M., Paolini, S., & Crisp, R. (2010). A processing fluency explanation of bias against migrants. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), 21-28 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.006

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