Determinants of Attitudes toward Immigrants and Refugees – The Role of Group Position, Norms and Justification of the System


Linda Tropp (University of Massachusetts Amherst), Dina Okamoto (Indiana University), Helen Marrow (Tufts University), & Michael Jones-Correa (Cornell University)

Empathy and apathy: Predicting White and Black Americans’ attitudes toward immigration

Many researchers point to empathy – or, a concern for others’ welfare – as a key mechanism for predicting more positive intergroup attitudes (Abbott & Cameron, 2014; Stephan & Finlay, 1999). Yet until very recently, researchers had not considered whether apathy – or, a lack of concern regarding others’ welfare – might play a unique role in shaping intergroup attitudes (see Forman, 2004; Forman & Lewis, 2015). Although empathy and apathy might initially be presumed to represent opposing ends of a continuum, they may actually represent different psychological processes underlying attitudes and relations between groups.

We examine these issues in the context of white and black Americans’ attitudes toward immigrants and immigration in the United States. In so doing, we also test whether expressions of empathy or apathy toward immigrants and immigration might depend on the status positions that perceiving groups occupy within the social structure (see Bobo, 1999), with the expectation that whites’ attitudes toward immigrants and immigration would be more strongly predicted by apathy (given their dominant position in the U.S. status hierarchy), whereas blacks’ attitudes toward immigrants and immigration would be predicted more strongly by empathy (given their subordinate position in the U.S. status hierarchy).

As part of a larger study on native-immigrant relations, a randomized telephone survey recruited white and black Americans in the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Atlanta. Samples were drawn through random digit dialling (RDD) of landlines and cell phone numbers to randomize selection of respondents and minimize selection bias, in conjunction with an oversampling of high-density census tracts, based on American Community Survey (ACS) block-group level estimates of where blacks live. Philadelphia and Atlanta were chosen as research sites, as they are comparable in population size, both have racialized black-white histories that have been reshaped by recent immigrant arrivals, and both have over 50,000 immigrant arrivals from the same two largest immigrant source countries (Mexico and India).

Altogether, 503 U.S.-born whites and 502 native-born blacks responded to the survey, with half of each sample coming from each of the two metropolitan areas. Demographic characteristics were recorded for each respondent, which have been used as controls in data analysis, including respondent age, gender, and political ideology, as well as employment status, level of education, and whether they owned their home as indicators of socio-economic status.

Key concepts were assessed using a series of single-item measures modelled after those used in other large-scale surveys (see Forman, 2015; Suro, 2009). Attitudes toward immigration were assessed by asking “Generally speaking, how do you feel about the number of immigrants in [Philadelphia/Atlanta] today?” with responses options ranging from “there are too many” (coded as 0) to “there are not too many” (coded as 2). Attitudes toward undocumented immigrants were assessed by asking “What comes closest to your own view about what to do with immigrants who don’t have legal immigration papers to be in the United States?” with response options ranging from “send them back to their home countries” (coded as 0) to “let them stay in the U.S. and become U.S. citizens” (coded as 2). Separate items assessed empathy and apathy in relation to Mexican and Indian immigrants, by asking respondents to indicate the degree to which they agree or disagree with the following statements: “I am often concerned that immigrants [from Mexico/from India] are treated unfairly and poorly” (empathy) and “It’s not really my problem if immigrants [from Mexico/from India] experience unfair treatment and need help” (apathy), with response options ranging from -2 (disagree strongly) to +2 (agree strongly).

On average, black respondents reported more empathy toward Mexican immigrants than did white respondents, while the groups did not significantly differ in empathy toward Indian immigrants. Additionally, black and white respondents did not significantly differ in the levels of apathy they reported in relation to Mexican or Indian immigrants. Empathy and apathy were only modestly, yet still significantly, correlated in relation to Mexican and Indian immigrants, among both black and white respondents.

Separate regression analyses were conducted to predict each immigration outcome among black and white respondents, entering demographic controls at the first step of analysis, and empathy and apathy at the second step of analysis. Beyond what could be predicted by the demographic indicators, whites’ attitudes toward immigration tended to be predicted more strongly by apathy than by empathy, whereas blacks’ attitudes toward immigration tended to be predicted more strongly by empathy than by apathy. Implications of these findings for future research on the roles of empathy and apathy in intergroup relations will be discussed.


Danielle Gaucher (University of Winnipeg), Justin Friesen (University of Winnipeg), & Katelin Neufeld (University of Winnipeg)

Tracking Canadian’s attitudes towards refugees and immigrants: An empirical investigation of whether and how Canadians’ attitudes have changed during Syrian refugee settlement

Canadians’ attitudes towards immigration are generally more positive than other Western nations, yet newcomers to Canada still face stereotyping and discrimination (Bloemraad, 2012; CBC, 2016; Dion & Kawakami, 1996; Harell et al., 2012; Louis, Esses, & Lalonde, 2013). Indeed, in the media and other public discourse, immigrants are often portrayed as threats to personal employment, health, or national security; this contributes to marginalization and can erode newcomers’ sense of belongingness and successful integration into Canadian society (Esses, Medianu, & Lawson, 2013). Certainly hostility and animosity sometimes fuel negative depictions of newcomers—but not always. Social psychological research suggests that negative depictions of marginalized groups and stereotypes about them are not only driven by hostility, but also arise as a by-product of other psychological motives, such as motivations to justify one’s socio-political system and the resulting status quo (, Jost & Banaji, 1994; Kay, Gaucher, Laurin, Peach, Friesen et al., 2009). Specifically, System Justification Theory (SJT) proposes that people, to varying degrees, have a psychological motivation to see their existing socio-political systems as legitimate, and thus engage in a variety of social-cognitive mechanisms to defend and bolster the extant status quo. If immigration is perceived by some Canadian citizens as a potential threat to the status quo—because newcomers’ cultural values and traditions can provoke social, political, and economic change—then there may be a conflict between the necessity of immigration for Canadian economic success, humanitarian goals, and global security, and the psychological motives that create resistance to change. We used SJT as a framework to understand and predict Canadians’ attitudes towards and stereotypes about refugees and other immigrant groups using a series of nationally representative surveys. In the early days of the Syrian Refugee settlement in Canada, we expected relatively less positive attitudes. However, to the extent that people perceive something to be system sanctioned (i.e., tied to core values of the Canadian system and/or part of the established status quo), system justification research demonstrates that they become more favourable towards it (Feygina, Jost & Goldsmith, 2010; Gaucher & Jost, 2011). Thus, to the extent that Syrian refugee settlement is officially supported by the government and positively portrayed in mass media (i.e., system sanctioned), Canadians’ attitudes should become more favourable. Indeed, preliminary data from our nationally representative surveys show positive increases Canadians’ attitudes towards all migrant classifications from June 2015 (pre-Syrian refugee arrival) to January 2016 (post-Syrian refugee arrival)—a pattern consistent with a system-sanctioned account of attitudes towards refugees and immigrants. In sum, we will present (at least) three waves of data documenting Canadians’ attitudes towards migrants and discuss the social-psychological processes underlying these attitudes. Moreover, informed from the results of the nationally representative survey, we will conduct (and present the findings of) two controlled experiments in which we systematically vary people’s perception of the extent to which immigration and refugee settlement is system sanctioned and assess their support for immigrant and refugee settlement. Ultimately, informed by our data, we will discuss the types of interventions to increase the warmth of newcomer welcome, identify areas of Canadian (dis)content, and propose a model that can be used to predict the trajectories of Canadians’ attitudes towards refugees during current and future periods of high migration.


Winnifred Louis (University of Queensland)

Actions and attitudes towards immigrants and asylum seekers

The present talk will summarise a series of studies examining attitudes and actions towards immigrants and asylum seekers in Australia, the US and Canada. The talk is organised around three axes of research and theorising: 1) understanding how group identities are implicated in constructing foreigners as a threat or as a welcome source of new group members; 2) understanding mobilisation and counter-mobilisation by citizens in the face of xenophobic or tolerant norms; 3) and understanding anti- and pro-immigration activists’ radicalisation and de-radicalisation. In each case, the research question is examined in relation to multiple group identities with conflicting norms.

In two initial studies, I first consider attitudes to immigrants and asylum seekers in relation to national identities on the one hand and political opinion group identities on the other. I show how multiple identities impact upon identity content such that irreconcilable, contradictory group norms are put forward as associated with the same identity by different political actors. For example, whether or not the national identity is normatively welcoming of immigrants or exclusionary is constructed differently by conservatives and progressives. Thus rather than being consensually defined, some national group norms are ‘lumpy’ – with different understandings of the norm being associated with particular regional, political or social factions, wings, or positions.

In two subsequent studies, I use this concept of lumpy group norms – i.e., contested group norms for a particular identity about a topic like immigration that highlight different clusters or constellations of multiple identities — to explore counter-mobilisation by right-wing citizens against welcoming, pro-immigrant, norms and by left-wing citizens against exclusionary norms. On a theoretical level, I propose that the norm nominally attached to a single group cues a constellation of identities including the groups or subgroups in conflict, evoking the polarized pattern of responding that is clearly demonstrated when issues such as immigration and multiculturalism are introduced.

In Studies 5 and 6, I then address resistance to norms for harm-doing in greater detail on the intra-individual as well as intra-group level. I use the self-determination concept of compartmentalization to understand the cognitive and motivational processes deployed by conservatives in order to embed harm-doing towards immigrants or refugees within social identities which ostensibly are normatively fair, generous and tolerant. Study 5 examines discrimination in the job market against immigrants, and Study 6 examines hostility to Muslim immigrants in the United States in relation to discriminatory norms put forward by presidential candidates such as Donald Trump.

In a final study, radical collective action on asylum seekers is examined in relation to the failure or success of past conventional or radical action (Study 7). This data is employed in order to consider the increasingly extreme, virulent, and violent debates between opponents and proponents of immigration as driven by group processes, and to unpack the trajectory of their radicalisation and de-radicalisation using a new theoretical perspective, the DIME model. In so-doing, it will become apparent that the conditions to prevent violent escalation of anti-immigrant xenophobia are not being met in the contemporary discourse.

In sum, the aim of the talk is to understand some of the intergroup processes at play in the formation and enaction of attitudes to immigrants and asylum seekers. I will use this powerful, emotional contemporary context to understand stability and change in political opinion group identities and norms in the context of the many other multiple identities that citizens bring to bear when they consider immigrants and immigration. By presenting a series of studies in this domain, I hope to speak to contemporary theoretical debates about normative influence and identities under conditions of social conflict and in times of change.