Immigration and the Historical Roots of Tolerance
One of the biggest social issues of our time involves how we get along with people who have different backgrounds than us—people of different nationalities, ethnicities, or religions.
What determines our attitudes and behaviors toward outsiders? An obvious factor is our own experience. For example, research shows that having repeated contact with people from different groups is a great way to reduce prejudice. Studies show that as long as these interactions are not hostile or overly competitive, more frequent contact—even mundane and emotionally-neutral contact—tends to improve our attitudes toward people who are different than us.
There is one major hurdle to this though: we are naturally predisposed to prefer people who are familiar and similar to us, and we’re less comfortable when others are different. One large-scale study found that trust toward other people is lower in cities with greater ethnic diversity. Here, greater diversity was related to distrust toward people of different ethnicities, as well as toward people in general.
But findings like these only document people’s feelings at that one point in time, when the study was conducted. Do people’s attitudes toward other groups change after some time has passed? For encounters with outsiders to have positive effects, people need sufficient time and opportunities to have contact—to overcome any initial discomfort and, if possible, for genuine relationships to form.
My research has looked at the effects of contact with people from other groups over long periods of time. Specifically, it considers how exposure to different groups, occurring over many generations in a culture, may contribute to modern values and attitudes.
To examine how people’s attitudes toward other groups change over time, my colleagues and I compared countries with different levels of ancestral diversity. Greater ancestral diversity means that a country’s current population has descended from people who came from many parts of the world over the past 500 years. For example, Argentina’s population today can be traced to ancestors who lived in 37 different world regions going back to the year 1500 AD and whose descendants immigrated to the modern-day borders of Argentina in the intervening years. Countries with high ancestral diversity, such as Argentina, have had a long history of frequent contact among people of different cultural backgrounds, languages, and religions over these centuries.
Early encounters between different groups no doubt caused some friction, but there were also strong incentives to reduce conflict and even cooperate with fellow countrymen over time. As people grew more accustomed to interacting with people from different backgrounds, the culture’s values would slowly change to favor tolerance toward outsiders, and these values would be passed on to subsequent generations, socializing them to be tolerant of people who are different from them.
Using two recent, large cross-cultural surveys, we found that, in countries with greater ancestral diversity, people today hold more positive attitudes toward immigrants and people of different races, compared to people who live in countries with low ancestral diversity.
We also examined the influence of a country’s existing diversity on these attitudes. The results from one of our studies found that countries in which diversity is currently higher had more negative attitudes toward those same groups than countries that are currently less diverse. So, although contact with outsiders over many years can increase tolerance, it can have negative effects on tolerance in the short run.
However, one point is worth stressing: it does not necessarily take years for contact with outsiders to improve people’s attitudes. Other studies show it can happen over much less time.
More generally, the findings suggest one reason why debates over immigration and integration are often so contentious: exposure to people from other cultures may be pulling people’s attitudes in opposite directions.
Those who view the presence of outsiders as negative sometimes argue that immigration and multiculturalism weaken the unity and cohesion needed for a well-functioning society. But our research suggests that this claim is short-sighted. In reality, diversity strengthens our connections to others in the long run.
For Further Reading
Shrira, I. (2020). Population diversity and ancestral diversity as distinct contributors to outgroup prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46, 885-895.
Hewstone, M. (2015). Consequences of diversity for social cohesion and prejudice: The missing dimension of intergroup contact. Journal of Social Issues, 71, 417-438.
Jetten, J., & Esses, V. M. (2018). The reception of immigrants and refugees in Western Countries: The challenges of our time. Journal of Social Issues, 74, 662-673.
Pettigrew, T. F., Wagner, U., & Christ, O. (2010). Population ratios and prejudice: Modelling both contact and threat effects. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36, 635-650.
Ilan Shrira is a social psychologist at Penn State University. He studies cultural differences and health outcomes.