10 December 2012

Despite Seldom Encounters With Foreigners or Immigrants Some People Have Strong Xenophobic and Racist Attitudes… It’s Not Despite; It’s Because (9)

The idea of this post came while I was chatting with a Dutch gentleman who mentioned several times that people in the East of The Netherlands are much more xenophobic and racist than people in the West of the Netherlands. Now, to better understand the context of this statement, you have to know that The Netherlands is quite a small country and from East to West it spans over approximately 250 km, which is not that much. At the same time, the biggest cities (and there are quite many) are in the Western part of the country. Here there are big cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

As you might have guessed already, most foreigners and immigrants are established in the western part where the major cities and industries are.

The exact extent of xenophobic and racist attitudes among people in the eastern part of the country is not known to me. At the same time, I have heard this from more than three people in The Netherlands, so a grain of truth must be there.

Now, let’s see how this works. As the story goes, people who have met very few foreigners and immigrants have strong negative attitudes toward them. This is quite surprising since these people have attitudes about something that they don’t know too much about. To the gentleman that told me this story this was very surprising. In addition to his surprise was the fact that people who live in the areas where there are many foreigners and immigrants have more favorable attitudes towards these groups.

To the naïve observer this is really surprising; people who know very little about foreigners and immigrants have strong negative attitudes towards these groups, while people who know considerably more about these groups have more favorable attitudes towards them.

The surprise comes from the (flawed) assumption that in order to have a strong attitude one has to have solid knowledge on the subject. This assumption is coherent (seems to make sense), but is not necessarily true. In some cases having a lot of knowledge on a topic leads to having a strong attitude towards that topic (thing).

At the same time, in order to have an attitude it is not necessary to have knowledge on the subject of the attitude. For example if you go on the street and start asking people what do they think about human life in space (such as on the International Space Station), you will get a lot of opinions. We have to acknowledge that most people (including ourselves) have very little knowledge on human life in out of space. However, knowing very little on something does not directly imply that we have no opinion on the topic or we have no attitude towards it.

If we agree that in order to have an opinion or an attitude towards something we need not have a lot of knowledge on it, then the question that arises is why have a negative attitude? The answer is quite simple and in order to find it, I suggest taking an imaginary trip back in time to the times of human evolution.

Going a few million years back in time, we will see that humans (or pre-humans) were living in small and isolated communities. As Geoffrey Miller says, most likely people from one community would not meet people from another community unless they would go to war against them. Living in these small isolated communities lead to the evolution of “fear of new things”.

The evolutionary rationale of “fear of new things” is quite simple. On all the things that are “old” namely that I know I have knowledge if they are dangerous to me (and to the community) or if they are not. In other words, I know that a cat is more or less harmless; I know that a lion is very likely to be harmful; I know that people who look like my and speak like me are (most likely) not going to kill me. On the things that are “new” namely that I don’t know, I have no knowledge whether they are dangerous or not. I believe that the evolutionary mechanism worked very simply in the sense that people who did not fear “new” things, eventually found something new that was dangerous and died.

Now you might say that this guy is advocating racism and xenophobia. In no way I do so. What I’m trying to explain is that the fear of what is new and what is different is something very natural for most humans. This fear is based on the lack of knowledge on the level of danger that “the something new” presents.

Foreigners and immigrants are by their nature “new things”. For people who have never encountered foreigners and immigrants it is normal to have a negative attitude towards these groups simply because they are “new” or “different”. By the same rationale, people who have met foreigners and immigrants and got to know them at least to the level of “they are not posing a threat to my life” have much less negative attitudes towards these groups simply because they are neither “new” nor “potentially dangerous”.

Again, I’m not advocating negative attitudes towards certain group, rather I am saying that the issue is not the attitude in itself, but the lack of knowledge on the group.

In the XXI century it is virtually impossible to have zero knowledge on a certain group of people or on any given topic, even life in the International Space Station. In the information era people get information on various topics with or without their conscious awareness.

In the case of people who don’t encounter other groups of people such as immigrants and foreigners, there is some information available on these groups. Let’s assume that Hans is a gentleman who lives in a relatively isolated community in the East of The Netherlands. He has never encountered a foreigner or immigrant in his community. At the same time, Hans has some knowledge on these groups acquired mainly from mass media and word of mouth.

I assume that this scenario is more than plausible, right? Now, if we think about how Hans got the information on immigrants and foreigners, it is not that hard to imagine that most of the information was more of a negative nature. This is a clear case of “availability heuristic” or as I like to call it “observation bias”.

Usually in the mass media and subsequently in public conscience information on immigrants and foreigners is negative. There is news on how a certain immigrant did something bad, or that a group of immigrants were planning something bad and the police caught them and so on. When this news reaches people who live in relatively isolated communities, it somehow finds a place in public conscience and is established as truth.

The truth is that some immigrants and foreigners do bad things and this gets reported by the media. At the same time, the media never presents the  large majority of immigrants and foreigners who work hard and live normal lives. You will never see a news report about the thousands of immigrants who work 6-7 days per week to support their families. You will never see news about foreigners who hold highly skilled jobs and are part of the “engine” of the economy.

In the case of people living in areas where there are more immigrants or foreigners, this type of news is generally counter-balanced by their own experiences. For example the city I live in, Rotterdam, is the most cosmopolite city in The Netherlands. Dutch Caucasians represent about 50% of the population. If you would live in Rotterdam, you would encounter a lot of people of different ethnicity, different race, different religion and so on. If you would hear news about an immigrant who did something bad this news will blend into your existing knowledge on foreigners and immigrants. Since you live in a very diverse city, you know that immigrants and foreigners are generally OK people who live normal lives and work hard. This implies that your knowledge on foreigners and immigrants would be very little influenced by the news on the immigrant that something bad.

Combine the general lack of knowledge on a social group with the natural “fear of new things” and the little information available in the mass media and public conscience mostly of negative nature and the result is that people in more isolated communities tend to have very negative attitudes towards groups of people about which they know almost nothing.

Lack of knowledge or in other words ignorance is a major source of xenophobia and racism…

It’s not despite not knowing too much about immigrants and foreigners, it’s because some people know very little about these groups that they have very negative attitudes towards them. 

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