How Can We Best Understand Public Reactions Towards Migrant Groups?


Ravini Abeywickrama (PhD candidate)

Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, The University of Melbourne


Consider the concept of migration from an evolutionary perspective, as detailed by social psychologists Cottrell and Neuberg (2005). Humans possess numerous benefits by co-existing in groups, such as sharing of limited economic resources. These interdependent lifestyles may nevertheless, be compromised by external threats. For example, scarce resources of a particular community may be in jeopardy by admittance of out-groups. Therefore, groups must be attuned to threats to tangible resources, such as property, and also to intangible resources, such as in-group cultural norms. However, merely being attuned to such threats is insufficient; particular psychological responses and behaviours are also necessary to combat these perceived threats effectively. As such, functionally specific emotional systems may have evolved to facilitate responses to specific threats, and subsequently drive adaptive action tendencies(2,3,4). Importantly, threats posed by out-groups may vary considerably. For example, one group may pose high threat to materialistic resources, while another may pose greater threat to cultural norms. Therefore, emotional experiences and corresponding action tendencies should display functional, adaptive relationships, contingent upon out-group membership.

For example, anger may arise when out-groups are perceived to present harm to materialistic resources, thereby inducing aggressive tendencies, whereas fear may arise from perceived threat to physical safety, thereby inducing avoidance. Guilt, on the other hand, may arise due to perceptions of in-group wrongdoing towards the out-group (violations on moral ground), stimulating pro-sociality towards the out-group.

This evolutionary account can be extended to untangling the current migration crisis, where major developed nations receive hundreds and thousands of migrants belonging to various legal and cultural backgrounds. The resolution of this crisis requires, at least in part, welcoming attitudes and behaviours on behalf of host communities(5). The problem is that multiple kinds of migrant groups (e.g. economic migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers) are part of this crisis and often not distinguished in research or in the media (6,7). However, it is vital to distinguish between these groups, as host citizens’ attitudes and behaviours may importantly vary between them (7,8).

For instance, despite the holistic portrayal of migrants, host citizens tend to express less welcoming attitudes towards certain groups over others, such as more negative attitudes towards asylum-seekers compared to refugees (9,10).  As asylum-seekers typically do not possess visas prior to entry, they are frequently depicted as “illegal” or “undeserving” migrants in media and policy (11,12,13). Congruent with this media portrayal, greater hostility has been elicited toward asylum-seekers, while refugees tend to be viewed more positively (9,10,14). Nevertheless, asylum-seekers have also elicited sympathetic attitudes from some host citizens, attributed to the harsh conditions they may experience in controversial detention centres (12,14). Although these two groups are broadly categorised as “migrants”, they appear to be perceived in disparate ways.

Despite conceptual differences between migrant groups, extant work in migrant literature fails to distinguish between different kinds of migrants (15,16,17,18). This has the consequence of viewing migrants through a homogenous lens, even if subtle distinctions in prejudice exist between groups. For example, a recent study by Murray and Marx (2013) indeed demonstrated higher economic threat perceptions towards “un-authorised” migrants (not possessing visa prior to entry, such as asylum-seekers) compared to “authorised” migrants (possessing visa prior to entry, such as refugees). Therefore, making categorical distinctions is important in migrant research, as they may affect beliefs about the legitimacy of certain groups, the level of welcoming attitudes (19,20,21), and subsequently the integration of these groups into host communities.

Future research on immigration may therefore benefit from a more nuanced approach to the study of prejudice. For instance, it may be important to consider the specific drivers of negative reactions towards a particular migrant group. This ties back to Cottrell and Neuberg’s (2005) evolutionary theorising, which suggests that different groups pose qualitatively different threats, emotions, and subsequent behaviours. For instance, host citizens may express more economic threat towards economic migrants, driving anger and subsequently aggression (active or passive) towards this group. In contrast, refugees may pose greater threat to cultural norms, accompanied by disgust and subsequent desire to segregate this group. Such empirical findings carry important practical implications for how governments and other stakeholders design more effective anti-prejudice interventions. That is, anti-prejudice interventions may need to be attuned to the differences in perceptions evoked by various migrant groups, in order to more successfully change attitudes and behaviours towards these individuals.



Works Cited


1. Cottrell, C. A., & Neuberg, S. L. (2005). Different emotional reactions to different groups: a sociofunctional threat-based approach to” prejudice”. Journal of personality and social psychology88(5), 770-789.

2. Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1990). The past explains the present: Emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology and sociobiology11(4), 375-424.

3. Ekman, P. (1999). Basic emotions. In T.Dalgleish, & T. Power (Eds.), Handbook of cognition and emotions (pp. 45-60). Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


4. Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2000). Evolutionary psychology and the emotions. In M. Lewis & J.M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp.91-115). New York: Guilford Press.


5. UNHCR Durable Solutions 2015. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/528a0a13b.html


6. Sales, R. (2002). The deserving and the undeserving? Refugees, asylum seekers and welfare       in Britain. Critical social policy, 22(3), 456-478.

7. Murray, K. E., & Marx, D. M. (2013). Attitudes toward unauthorized immigrants, authorized immigrants, and refugees. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 19(3), 332-341.

8. Hartley, L. K., & Pedersen, A. (2015). Asylum Seekers and Resettled Refugees in Australia: Predicting Social Policy Attitude From Prejudice Versus Emotion. Journal of Social and Political Psychology3(1), 179-197.


9. Hartley, L., & Pedersen, A. (2007). Asylum seekers: How attributions and emotionaffect Australians’ views on mandatory detention of “the other.” Australian Journal of Psychology, 59(3), 119–131.


10. Haslam, N., & Holland, E. (2012). Attitudes towards asylum seekers: The Australian Experience. In D. Bretherton & N. Balvin (Eds.), Peace Psychology in Australia (pp. 107–120). Boston, MA: Springer US. Retrieved from http://www.springerlink.com/index/10.1007/978-1-4614-1403-2_7


11. Klocker, N., & Dunn, K. M. (2003). Who’s driving the asylum debate? Newspaper and government representations of asylum seekers. Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy, 109(1), 71-92.


12. Mckay, F. H., Thomas, S. L., & Kneebone, S. (2012). “It would be okay if they came through the proper channels”: Community perceptions and attitudes toward asylum seekers in Australia. Journal of Refugee Studies, 25(1), 113–133.


13. Rowe, E., & O’Brien, E. (2014). ‘Genuine’ refugees or illegitimate ‘boat people’: Political constructions of asylum seekers and refugees in the Malaysia Deal debate. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 49(2), 171-193.


14. Pedersen, A., Attwell, J., & Heveli, D. (2005). Prediction of negative attitudes toward Australian asylum seekers: False beliefs, nationalism, and self-esteem. Australian Journal of Psychology, 57(3), 148–160.


15. Curşeu, P. L., Stoop, R., & Schalk, R. (2007). Prejudice toward immigrant workers among Dutch employees: Integrated threat theory revisited. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37(1), 125-140.


16. Green, E. G. (2009). Who can enter? A multilevel analysis on public support for immigration criteria across 20 European countries. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 12(1), 41-60.


17. Pereira, C., Vala, J., & Costa‐Lopes, R. (2010). From prejudice to discrimination: The legitimizing role of perceived threat in discrimination against immigrants. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(7), 1231-1250.


18. Wlodarczyk, A., Basabe, N., & Bobowik, M. (2014). The perception of realistic and symbolic threat and its influence on prejudice, ingroup favouritism and prosocial response. Revista de Psicología Social, 29(1), 60-89.


19. Lynn, N., & Lea, S. (2003). A phantom menace and the new Apartheid’: the social construction            of asylum-seekers in the United Kingdom. Discourse & Society14(4), 425-452.


20. Verkuyten, M. (2005). Immigration discourses and their impact on multiculturalism: A discursive and experimental study. British Journal of Social Psychology44(2), 223-240.


21. Zárate, M. A., & Shaw, M. P. (2010). The role of cultural inertia in reactions to immigration on the US/Mexico border. Journal of Social Issues66(1), 45-57.

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