Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Psychology of Anti-Refugee Attitudes, Part 1

As a psychology 101 instructor whose students are largely non-psychology majors, I generally introduce the course objectives by stating, “You are going to forget most of what I teach you in this class.” Although that may sound like a pessimistic way to begin a semester, there is a reason for this statement. Those students that elect not to major in psychology will likely forget about schedules of reinforcement, the functions of the parietal lobe, and the specifics of Piaget’s stages, and that’s ok.  What I expect them to take from my course is an ability to think critically about issues that they will face in the future, whether they be personal, political, or otherwise – a skill that will be useful to them throughout their lives, no matter their chosen career. Throughout the course, we discuss a number of psychological phenomena that affect critical thinking abilities. What follows is a breakdown of a number of these phenomena, using the current debate surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis as a framework. These phenomena include biases in thinking as well as social psychological principles. For the sake of brevity, I will divide this into two posts: the first discussing thinking biases, and the second addressing social psychological concepts.

First, I want to discuss critical thinking briefly. While there are multiple theories regarding stages/levels of critical thinking, the one we focus on in my course was developed by King and Kitchener (2004), who proposed several levels of critical thinking divided into 3 categories:

1)     Pre-reflective thinkers tend to assume that a correct answer always exists and that it can be obtained through the senses or from authorities. So, in thinking about the refugee crisis, pre-reflective thinkers are likely to base their opinions on what they hear from whatever politicians, media, or other “authority figures” believe. Certainly we are all influenced by this, but pre-reflective thinkers take no other steps to think for themselves. They are also uncomfortable with nuance or a lack of certainty, believing a clear solution is always available. These individuals will assume that some action (bombing Syria, putting troops on the ground, impeaching the president, refusing refugees, etc.) will solve the problem of ISIS.

2)     Quasi-reflective thinkers recognize that some things cannot be known with absolute certainty and that judgments should be supported by evidence, yet they pay attention only to evidence that fits what they already believe. On the positive side, they are able to acknowledge that a clear correct solution may not always exist. The issue of ISIS is a perfect example. How can we get rid of them? Should we put boots on the ground and stomp them out, likely being forced to occupy indefinitely to keep the peace? Should we bomb from afar? Should we stay out of the Middle East completely? There are no easy answers here.   On the other hand, quasi-reflective thinkers ignore evidence that goes against their beliefs - another powerful psychological concept referred to as “confirmation bias” – something I am certainly not immune to despite being aware of. Those who do not want to allow Syrian refugees into the U.S. are likely to only pay attention to the information that Syrians are dangerous, only read articles criticizing the Obama administration, and ignore conflicting evidence/perspectives. Thus, a conservative individual may obtain his news only from Fox News Channel, which confirms the individual’s beliefs and results in making them even stronger. Those on the other side are equally likely to pay attention only to evidence that would support the acceptance of Syrian refugees.

3)     Those who use reflective judgment acknowledge that some things can never be known with certainty, but some judgments are more valid than others. These individuals also use dialectical reasoning, which involves considering and comparing opposing points of view in order to resolve differences (essentially what juries are supposed to do in deciding a case). Most people show no evidence of reflective judgment until their middle or late 20s, if ever.

Before we move on, I want to make an additional point about confirmation bias. Have you ever tried arguing with someone about something you both feel strongly about? Have you ever successfully changed someone’s mind on that issue? Probably not, and confirmation bias is one of the main reasons why. Let me tell you about a recent study that explained how this works. Researchers at UCLA divided adults whom were skeptical of the safety of vaccinations into three groups. One group was provided information from the CDC explaining that the Measles, Mumps, & Rubella (MMR) vaccine is safe. The second group read materials that described the dangers of those diseases and viewed images of children with the diseases, as well as information on how vaccines can prevent the diseases. The third group was a control that read a statement unrelated to MMR vaccines. The researchers found that explaining the dangers of the diseases was the only approach that increased support for vaccination - presenting evidence of the safety of vaccines had no effect (Home, Powell, Hummel, & Holyoak, 2015).

That evidence doesn’t change people’s minds is no surprise. Other research has found that not only do people ignore disconfirming evidence, but when people have strong beliefs, such evidence can sometimes serve to make people even more entrenched in their views (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010).

In addition to confirmation bias, we use certain shortcuts, known as heuristics, to help us quickly process information and make decisions (Myers & DeWall, 2014). These heuristics are useful most of the time, but can sometimes lead us astray. One such example is affect heuristic, in which we judge the goodness of a situation based on how it makes us feel. This is sort of like “going with your gut” and can be adaptive in many situations. If you are in a situation and feel frightened, you are likely to try to escape the situation, which could possibly save your life. At a more mundane level, think about how you choose what cereal you are going to buy at the store. You may go through each box, examining the nutrition content and analyzing the taste, texture, price, and smell of each one; however, this would probably waste a lot of time. Instead, you probably just see one that you feel positively about, pull it off of the shelf, and move on with your day.

However, the affect heuristic can have other effects – something media outlets know well. Using fearmongering techniques, media can manipulate our emotions surrounding an issue, which affects how we feel about it. Those who do not want to accept refugees have a strong fear of a terrorist attack and likely Muslims in general. Others have an emotional reaction of “empathy,” which outweighs their fear and influences them to welcome refugees.

The final concept I want to mention is another heuristic called availability heuristic. Basically, we tend to judge the probability of an event occurring based on how easy it is to think of instances of that event. Whenever there is a terrorist attack, we hear about it on the news, making that information very available in our minds. What we do not hear about are stories about Muslim people who are peaceful citizens and not terrorists. That information is not newsworthy. Because it’s easier for us to recall examples of Muslims being terrorists than examples of them being peaceful, we may overestimate the probability of a Muslim refugee being a potential terrorist.

In part 2, I’ll talk about some of the social psychological principles that are influencing people’s perceptions of whether refugees should be welcomed into our country.


Home, Z., Powell, D., Hummel, J. E., & Holyoak, K. J. (2015). Countering antivaccination attitudes. PNAS, 112, 10321-10324.

Hyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32, 303-330.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (2004). Reflective judgment: Theory and research on the development of epistemic assumptions through adulthood. Educational Psychologist, 39, 5-18.

Myers, D. G., & DeWall, C. N. (2014). Psychology in everyday life. New York: Worth.

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