Immigration: The doors of perception

Surveys show that people systematically overestimate the share of foreign-born citizens among resident populations. Aligning people's perceptions with

Publishing date
12 December 2018

This article was published by Público.


Immigration has become a highly charged topic over the last three years. The word ‘immigration’ takes today a significant space in the political discourse, feeds populist narratives and influences electorates. See not only the cases of Brexit and Trump, but also the 2017 elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, as well as this year’s Italian elections. In the meantime, the media and political discourses often lack nuance and hinder the debate from focusing on the impacts, benefits, challenges and policies that different types of immigration require.

In 2015, the Eurobarometer reported that immigration was the main concern for citizens in the European Union. The question did not differentiate between working migrants, exchange students, asylum-seekers or immigrants for family reunification purposes. Ever since then, the percentage of citizens identifying immigration as one of the two main questions relevant to national policy has been diminishing. However, it still accounts for a fifth of citizens’ answers, and is only surpassed by concerns over unemployment or health and social security.

These numbers reflect perceptions. The problem is, as human beings, we are not especially competent in forming unbiased perceptions. Eurostat surveys show that citizens in the EU systematically overestimate the share of foreign-born citizens in the total of the resident population. This myopia is not specific to Europe, being present in the United States and Canada too.

The question follows: “Why do you think the percentage is bigger?”, to which paradoxically nearly half of those surveyed answer: “I still think I am right”.

A study published this year (Alesina et. al, 2018) shows that perceptions of the number and composition of immigrants in a country are highly biased. On average, people estimate the share of foreign-born citizens in their country to be twice as high as the real value. There is also a tendency to overestimate the share of immigrants who may come from regions with largest cultural differences, the share who may be poorer, less educated or more dependent on social benefits, or those less able to contribute to the economy of the host country. It also seems to be the case that we are all guilty of thinking poorly: independently of our gender, age, education level or sector in which we work, the margin of overestimation never falls below 15 percentage points.

Perhaps worse than thinking poorly is being adamant about it. In 2014, after surveying citizens of the UK on their estimates, the Ipsos Moris Institute confronted them with the real share of immigrants in a country. The key question follows: “Why do you think the percentage is bigger?”, to which paradoxically nearly half of those surveyed (47%) reject the official numbers and answer: “I still think I am right”.

Given this tendency, how can we instead build a constructive narrative conducive to a public opinion and debate guided by the facts? The first step may be to understand why it is that we think poorly. Psychology tells us we are prone to ‘emotional innumeracy’ – as human beings, we tend to extrapolate from our personal experiences, even if that implies rejecting the official data.

In this context, it helps – but it is not enough – that media and policymakers communicate numbers, studies and facts. It also matters that we understand and recall how we absorb, process and retain information. The Migration Policy Institute (Banulescu-Bodgan, 2018) reviewed the social psychology literature and leaves us with some suggestions. It concludes, for instance, that communicating through cost-benefit analyses is limited in its efficiency, given that people follow their “moral compass” more often than their economic one.

On the other hand, to rebuke an argument instead of dialoguing is counterproductive and raises defences. This is why fact-check pages, albeit being noble causes, tend to preach to the choir. It is also advisable to avoid the repetition of fake ideas (or news) even when trying to demystify them, as our brain assimilates and enjoys repetition. Rather, it is more constructive to build a new narrative. The most interesting suggestion, though a long-term one, is to foster a critical-thinking culture before a crisis or an election, as deeply rooted convictions are resistant to change.

In the short-to-medium term, the importance of integration policies cannot be put aside. Allport’s (1954) “contact hypothesis” tells us that different types of contact may either mute or amplify prejudices. A form of contact that is close and cooperative, opposed to an interaction that is merely casual, can help to reduce prejudices against minorities. There is also evidence that, in developing positive attitudes towards one member of a minority group, these tend to extend to the entire group. This reinforces the need for micro-local integration policies focused both on the immigration population and on the host population.

To align perceptions with reality is utterly important to the betterment of public debate and proposed policies. Even more so, when these policies have a humanitarian impact and reflect the weakening of democracies in countries with major roles in the international scene and the EU. To a significant extent, this process implies analysing and changing the way we communicate and debate. And this may take a while.

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