Opinion: Psychological study explains our strong feelings around immigration

Even the most casual observer of American politics realizes that the rhetoric around immigration has become uncompromising and rigid. This can be said of politics more broadly in an era of toxic polarization, where policy attitudes generally fall along partisan lines.

Yet, in a nationally representative survey we recently conducted, we found that partisanship is only part of the answer to why immigration attitudes have become rigid and moralized, making difficult to find common ground on any immigration issue. 

For many Americans, attitudes on immigration-related issues have become sacred values—which are values we process as moral obligations rather than choices.

What Immigration Issues Do Americans Hold Sacred? A Psychological Journey into American Attitudes toward Immigrants by Nichole Argo, Ph.D. and Kate Jassin, Ph.D., provides groundbreaking insights by digging deeper into how our brains are processing immigration issues. 

Our March 2020 survey revealed which immigration-related issues have become sacred values—which are values we process as moral obligations rather than choices, activating different areas of the brain than regular values.

How much do you care?

Our survey asked respondents to choose between a more open (e.g., welcoming) or restrictive stance on 14 key immigration issues such as asylum, sanctuary cities, DACA, the border wall, the Muslim ban, family separation, and more. Next, they reflected on how much the stance mattered to them.

Finally, they indicated how much money it would take for them to let go of their position, or act against it. The respondents who selected “no amount of money—I will not give this value up” were seen as holding the issue as a sacred value. 

While an emotional, all-or-nothing commitment to policy issues could be seen as helpful to issue organizers, it is actually the opposite—sacralization makes it very hard to deliberate with people who hold other views, much less compromise.

We found that each one of the 14 immigration-related issues was considered sacred by at least 34% (and at most 56%) of the survey sample—the same way, for instance, that they might be unwilling to consider selling their child or acting in violation of their faith. They sacralized more open, welcoming stances as well as more restrictive ones, and the people sacralizing these stances came from the right and left side of the political spectrum (with liberals sacralizing seven issues on average, and conservatives sacralizing six).

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Why does this matter? Because we must communicate differently around sacred values than we would around normal values.

No room to negotiate

While you can argue the merits of a normal value or offer monetary trade-offs to negotiate about it, doing so will feel like a moral violation for the holder of the sacred value, leading them to feel anger, disgust or outrage. In laboratory and field studies around the world, such experiences often cause the value holder to leave (ending the exchange, dialogue or negotiation) or, in the most extreme instances, to become aggressive.

Further, given that all of this brain processing is happening below one’s conscious awareness, it may be hard for the value holder to be aware of, much less control, these reactions.

The fact that each of 14 immigration issues is sacralized by at least one-third of our survey sample has profound implications for civic debate and political compromise, two foundational tenets of American democracy. While an emotional, all-or-nothing commitment to policy issues could be seen as helpful to issue organizers, it is actually the opposite—sacralization makes it very hard to deliberate with people who hold other views, much less compromise.

And since violations of sacred values lead to vitriolic rhetorical or physical aggression, engaging on these issues incorrectly is likely to escalate our already unhealthy levels of toxic polarization.  

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Frankly, having followers with sacred values could too easily play into the hands of leaders stoking partisan division for personal or party gain at the expense of the country overall.

A way out of our political dead-end

What can be done to de-sacralize immigration issues, or move them back into a brain space where they can be deliberated? 

First, we can seek to understand the values underlying the sacralization. In the scientific literature on sacred values, one of the greatest predictors of sacralization is threat. Threat is the perception—whether it is objectively true or not—that another group is going to take away something that matters to you or your group, be it physical (such as safety or money) or cultural (such as identity, way of life).  

In our behavioral survey, high open- and restrictive-stance sacralizers differed in how they perceived immigration threats.

High restrictive sacralizers viewed immigrants as a threat to safety and jobs. They were also more likely to think minority groups such as African-Americans, immigrants and women were systemically favored in America today. Open sacralizers did not perceive such threats from immigration, but they were more likely to have experienced discrimination themselves—meaning they may see the current system as somewhat threatening, and making them more empathetic to the struggle of newcomers. 

The other major explanation for sacralizing behavior revealed by our study was the role of social identity—whether or not respondents thought the immigration issues were considered central to their political groups. The more the immigration issue was considered central their group, the more likely they were to sacralize it—this was the case for both liberals or conservatives, underscoring the immense influence partisan leaders hold over us via the cues they impart.

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Importantly, a person’s demographics (income, education, religion) were, by themselves, the least predictive factor. That is, being white or evangelical Christian was not associated with sacralization, however the extent to which these identities overlapped mattered: if one was white, evangelical Christian and conservative, they were more likely to sacralize restrictive stances (probably because these categories tended to be exposed to the same narratives.

Acknowledging, listening, thinking

While the research on desacralization is still new, it offers some suggestions for how we can handle the challenge here. 

First, once we’ve identified the values underlying what is sacralized, we can acknowledge them. 

Acknowledgment might mean seeking to understand the threats that one side feels. That is, listening and prioritizing the conversation as much as any outcome. 

Second, one brain study found that sacralized issues began to be processed in brain areas for deliberation once the sacred-value holders learned that their social group did not sacralize the issue (they shared the same stance, but did not sacralize it). Since our study revealed a tremendous influence of group norms on immigration-related sacralizing behavior, it suggests that the modeling of new norms—e.g., norms of listening and deliberation rather than absolutist, fiery rhetoric—might create constructive change.   

There is no silver bullet solution to our immigration divides, but this study provides a clearer understanding of why it is become so difficult to find common ground and how we can begin to dial down the intensity of our deliberations.

Nichole Argo, Ph.D. is the director of field advancement at Over Zero. Wendy Feliz is the director of the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council.

View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/psychological-study-explains-our-strong-feelings-around-immigration-11614799017

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