Perception of immigrationThe power of negative thinking: why perceptions of immigration are resistant to facts

By Heather Rolfe

Published 16 October 2018

Research shows consistently high levels of concern among people in the UK over the scale of immigration and its impact on jobs and services. New research on how people use and understand information about the economic impacts of immigration shows that there is a tendency to rely on personal accounts rather than on economic statistics.

The recent report from the Migration Advisory Committee confirms what all main research studies on the subject have consistently shown: the economic impacts of EU migration in the UK are very largely positive. Yet immigration was undoubtedly a main driver behind the Leave vote in the EU referendum and opinion polls consistently show public concerns centre on negative impacts on jobs, wages and public services.

To test ways of getting people to consider the economic evidence of the impact of EU migration, a team at NIESR and Birkbeck College carried out research in a predominantly Leave voting area, Sittingbourne Kent. We found immigration attitudes are deeply embedded, resistant to change, and that immigration is framed as a problem, sometimes a threat and something that politicians should be dealing with. This was despite recognition of the economic benefits of EU migration. What are the consequences of this negative mindset and, as new immigration policy starts to emerge, how can the quality of the debate be improved?

Immigration attitudes are resistant to change
We asked our focus group participants to consider the economic evidence on immigration through three experimental interventions: active listening, playing devils’ advocate with their own immigration concerns, and writing a short defence for a policy which would benefit migrants. We also screened our own facts-based video, summing up the available evidence on the economic impact of immigration. However, consistent with existing evidence from survey research, attitudes of our participants were impervious to these methods.