Immigration Innumeracy: How Well Informed Are People About Immigration?

Is immigration innumeracy based on emotion or experience?

Posted Aug 04, 2010

Immigration reform is a hot issue these days, both in the U.S. and in Europe.  In the U.S., the debate about immigration reform has recently heated up, after the passage of a new Arizona law that would require that law enforcement personnel, when suspicious about whether someone is a legal resident, get proof that the individual is a legal resident or to take them into custody. In Europe, concerns about immigration have led the European Union to work towards the development of a common EU immigration policy

But while immigration reform is a big concern, it is not clear how much the public really knows about immigration, nor how public opinion about immigration is shaped.   An interesting new research paper by Daniel Herda (UC Davis), sheds some light on these questions.   Herda's paper is now available online, "How Many Immigrants? Foreign-Born Population Innumeracy in Europe", and he looks at immigration innumeracy across a number of European nations.

So what is "immigration innumeracy"?  The Wikipedia entry for "innumeracy" defines it as "a lack of ability to reason with numbers."  Thus, "immigration innumeracy" is the lack of an ability to reason with numbers about immigration --- specifically in the context of Herda's study, a lack of knowledge about the size of the immigrant population in one's own nation.  

Of course, there have been studies of innumeracy regarding minority populations in the U.S., but as Herda correctly points out, these studies have not come to a strong consensus about the causes of minority population innumeracy.  Typically, past studies have found that people tend to overestimate the size of minority populations, and that this innumeracy tends to occur for less informed survey respondents and those who have more contact with the minority groups.

Herda finds something very similar in his study --- Europeans tend to overestimate the size of the immigrant population in their nations (see Table 2 in his paper).  In a number of nations, the mean survey estimate of the size of the immigrant population is twice that of the actual size of the immigrant population.  So immigration innumeracy is the norm across these European nations.

Also like the past studies regarding minority population innumeracy done in the U.S., Herda finds that for Europeans the extent of immigration innumeracy is associated with how informed and exposed to information an individual is.

But what is most important about Herda's study is that he finds that emotional factors play an important role immigration innumeracy:  "Among the emotional predictors, perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy. It does so net of social distance and political conservatism, which have their own significant positive and negative associations, respectively."  

It is this emotional basis for immigration innumeracy that I find most intriguing. To the extent that an individual in one of these surveys perceives that immigrants pose a threat, they are more likely to overestimate the extent of the immigrant population.  

What implications does this have for the immigration debate in Europe, or the U.S.?  Clearly, this needs research.  Does immigration innumeracy indicate a predisposition to a susceptibility to anti-immigrant rhetoric?  Can innumeracy be influenced by candidates and political parties?  Are the emotional factors playing a role in immigration innumeracy similar in the U.S.?  Can political rhetoric leverage innumeracy and sway opinions about immigration and immigration reform?  

While there is a great need for new research on questions like these, it seems pretty clear that candidates and politicians know how to connect their emotional rhetoric about immigration with numeracy about the issue.  For example, the 1994 Wilson television advertisement about illegal immigration (which I wrote about in another blog essay, "Threat and Anxiety --- Why Negative Political Attack Ads Work") seeks to connect emotions and numeracy:  just listen to the first part of the ad, "They keep coming.  Two million illegal immigrants in California ..."

In any case, Herda's study opens the door to a number of fascinating research questions, and clearly there is a great deal of research that is necessary about immigration reform.