Who is anti-migrant? The personality traits behind prejudice


Negative attitudes toward migrant populations and refugees is a popular topic of study among prejudice researchers, with these groups being almost universally maligned in their host countries.

Understanding the nature and determinants of such attitudes is particularly important today in the wake of an unprecedented refugee crisis. Over four million people fled the recent conflict in Syria, overwhelming the ability of neighbouring countries and the European Union to cope with such an influx. This social-climate has likely also contributed to the success of far-right populist political candidates trading on fears about Muslim migrants in particular.

Why does the prospect of increased immigration provoke prejudice? Large numbers of culturally distinct newcomers bring the threat of both change and competition. From a social psychological perspective, these threats trigger two very important psychological motives – a motivation for social stability and safety, and a motivation to retain the dominant social status of one’s own group (and see this social hierarchy as legitimate).

One implication of these dual prejudice motivations is that groups with certain characteristics are more likely to be discriminated against.

One study (Duckitt & Sibley, 2007) provided some memorable categories for these characteristics: dangerous, derogated, and deviant. Dangerous groups pose a threat to individuals that are highly motivated to ensure security and stability. Derogated (or low-status) groups are targeted by those who are highly motivated to see their own group as superior, and who feel that this inequality is just. Deviant groups elicit both motives, being seen as (a) a threat to the status-quo, and (b) competitive enough to carry that threat through. In the original research, some examples of deviant groups included feminists and protestors.

When we look at common stereotypes about migrants and refugees, it is apparent that they too can be classified as deviant using this terminology from prejudice research. Common stereotypes applied to these groups include having cultural values and practises that are incompatible with those of the host culture, and needing jobs and other economic resources from their host nation like homes and schooling.


Is prejudice a personality type?

The first theorist to recognise personality, Gordon Allport, observed that individuals who are prejudiced toward one group are more likely to have prejudices about other groups. Someone who dislikes refugees, is therefore more likely to, say, resist equal pay for women or support policies that are tough on welfare recipients. Therefore, Allport argued, prejudice must be a trait in which some people are consistently intolerant, whereas others are consistently tolerant.

Rather than a personality trait in itself, prejudice is now considered to be a product of particular underlying personality traits.

Specifically, the trait Openness to Experience predisposes people to be more or less open to new information that might challenge or even disconfirm their beliefs. Individuals that are more motivated to ensure safety and stability tend to be more closed-minded in this way.

They therefore pay more attention to, say, news reports suggesting migrants are dangerous and alien, and less attention to reports that suggest, say, migrants are historically valuable social and economic assets to their host nation, or that refugees are genuinely in need of assistance from wealthy and peaceful nations.

The second trait associated with prejudice is called Agreeableness. This trait is similar to empathy and compassion, and low levels of Agreeableness lead to prejudice because dis-agreeable people are more tolerant of inequality and social hierarchies. In other words, they lack concern for members of groups that are disadvantaged by economic inequality.

Research is now also emerging showing that dis-agreeable people are less fair when distributing resources in classic economic games (Zhao & Smillie, 2015).

The concerning thing about this evidence for prejudiced traits, is that personality is notoriously difficult to change. Instead, this approach points to ways in which policies and portrayals of migrant groups in the media can be re-framed so as to minimise concerns about social change and competition. Another implication is that these prejudice motivations are relatively benign in social contexts where people generally feel safe and where inequality is low.

Prejudice reduction is not impossible however; a recent experimental intervention demonstrated that perspective-taking can reduce prejudice, and with lasting effects (Broockman & Kalla, 2016).

Targeted change at both the individual and societal level is slow and challenging, but illustrating the traits and processes that motivate specific types of prejudice will help us know where change is most likely to occur.




Broockman, D., & Kalla, J. (2016). Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing. Science352, 220-224.

Duckitt, J., & Sibley, C. G. (2007). Right wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation and the dimensions of generalized prejudice. European Journal of Personality21, 113-130.

Zhao, K., & Smillie, L. D. (2015). The role of interpersonal traits in social decision making: Exploring sources of behavioral heterogeneity in economic games. Personality and Social Psychology Review19, 277-302.

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