We all have heard the argument that immigrants take jobs away from people born in the country. But we also all have heard the argument they are a drain on a country’s resources by taking advantage of social security benefits. As some have pointed out, there seems to be a contradiction between these two arguments. At the very least, each implies a very different portrait of immigrants: one in which they are eager to take any work offered to them, the other in which they would rather laze around on benefits.
Despite the apparent inconsistency, there is a simple explanation for why both stereotypes of immigrants are prominent in anti-immigration discourse. It is because both serve the same political agenda. What matters above all is the conclusion that immigration should be stopped or restrained. We often assume that it is stereotypes about immigrants that determine political positions on immigration, yet the reverse can also be true. Stereotypes are not merely “pictures in our heads”; they are also political tools. To take an example in another area, there is no doubt that paternalistic stereotypes about “children-like” populations played a major role in justifying the whole enterprise of colonization.
This political dimension has long been suggested in the literature on stereotyping, but rarely demonstrated. In our studies, we asked our participants to try to convince an audience of their own views about immigration, i.e., whether it should or should not be restricted more strongly. However, some were told that the issue of job competition was the key to shift the audience’s position, whereas others were told that it was the issue of social security funds. We found that those who wished to restrict immigration depicted immigrants as more hard-working when trying to convince others that immigration should be restricted because of job competition, but as lazier when it should be restricted because of the impact on social security funds. This variability in stereotypes was not limited to anti-immigration arguments, however, as the reverse was true for those with more positive views on immigration.
Another important finding is that this flexibility seems to rely on what is sometimes called motivated reasoning. We already know from past research that people can be selective when they draw on past experiences to form and express their views of others. For instance, if one is determined to see someone in a negative light, one may remember the instances in which that person was mean and discard those in which that person was nice. What is novel about our studies is that they suggest that a similar phenomenon can also occur for political reasons. This means that we should not necessarily look at this as an example of people expressing stereotypes publicly that they do not endorse privately. Rather, what people “really” think can change from one situation to another.
The big message is that this may explain why some stereotypes about immigrants seem to be pervasive in all countries characterized by mass immigration.
Much research has sought to explain this pervasiveness by appealing to inherent limitations in our cognitive abilities (stereotypes being shortcuts to judge others) or self-enhancement motives (seeing others negatively being one way to feel better about oneself). However, these answers focus on the needs or capacities of individuals.
We suggest that there may be more systematic factors at play. If stereotypes serve political projects, then as long as those projects are undertaken, those stereotypes will keep being used. But this does not mean we have to accept all stereotypes as an unavoidable reality. Rather, it means that, when we wish to challenge specific stereotypes, we should not merely look at what they say, but also at what they do. Since it is always possible to find examples that confirm different or even contradictory stereotypes, we should not just argue over their “reality,” but look at their political consequences, and argue over which political projects deserve or not our support, as a function of the kind of society we wish to live in.
Published by Denis Sindic
These findings are described in the article entitled Schrodinger’s immigrant: The political and strategic use of (contradictory) stereotypical traits about immigrants, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 79 (2018) 227-238). This work was conducted by Denis Sindic and Rita Morais ISCTE-Lisbon University Institute, Rui Costa-Lopes at the Institute of Social Science of the University of Lisbon, and Olivier Klein of the Free University of Brussels, and Manuela Barreto at the University of Exeter and ISCTE-Lisbon University Institute.
- The expression “Schrödinger’s immigrant” was borrowed from the following source: Adler, N. (2014, November 28). UKIP warns of Schrödinger’s immigrant who ‘lazes around on benefits whilst simultaneously stealing your job’. Retrieved January 6, 2016, from https://newsthump.com/2014/11/28/ukip-warns-of-schrodingers-immigrant-who-lazes-around-on-benefits-whilst-simultaneously-stealing-your-job/