Our beliefs about nationality are mixed and malleable, and may help explain attitudes toward immigration


By Christian Jarrett

What is nationality?

Is it something fixed that we inherit biologically from our parents or is it a characteristic that we can change and acquire? A new study in Nature Human Behaviour is the first to study people’s “folk theories” about nationality – based on surveys of US and Indian participants – and the results show that, at least in these countries, people are broadly sympathetic toward both these contrasting theories of nationality at the same time, although with a bias toward the fluid theory.

The relative strength of people’s endorsement of the theories at any given time depended on the way questions about nationality were framed, the researchers found. Moreover, and perhaps most interesting for future investigation, the results showed people’s ideas about nationality were tied to their attitudes toward immigration, even after factoring out any differences in political leanings. Mostafa Rad and Jeremy Ginges at the New School for Social Research and Princeton University surveyed a total of 2013 US participants and 732 Indian participants. They presented the participants with variations of the following scenario:

Please imagine the following: A child is born to Pakistani parents but is orphaned at birth. When the child is one day old, they are adopted and raised by an American family and are never told about their origin.”

Next, the participants were asked, “all things considered”, to rate how much, from 0 to 100 per cent, the child will match the nationality of his or her birth parents, or – in a different framing – they were asked to make the same assessment for how much the child will match the nationality of their adoptive parents (debriefing clarified that, as hoped, the participants were considering nationality, not citizenship – which depends on more obvious and explicit legal stipulations that vary in different countries).

The participants’ views on what governs nationality varied according to the framing of the question – on the one hand, they stated on average that the child would share 77.8 per cent (US participants) or 74.2 per cent (Indian participants) of their adoptive parents’ nationality, suggesting a fluid view of nationality. Yet, when the question was framed around the birth parents’ nationality, the participants also stated that the child would share 39 percent (US participants) or 45.4 per cent (Indian participants) of their birth parents’ nationality, on average, indicative of a more fixed, genetic-based folk theory of nationality.

Varying the scenario wording so that the birth and adoptive parents’ skin colour was the same or different (based on ethnic and national stereotypes) made little difference to participants’ rates of agreement with both the fluid and genetic folk theories of nationality.

People hold contradictory ideas about nationality

The results suggest that, at least in the US and India, a lot of people hold in their heads two contradictory theories about the roots of nationality at the same time.

“Cultural evolution may have favored such flexible reasoning about the acquisition of nationality,” the researchers said, “as the ‘malleable’ theory allows for a rapid expansion of the group, whereas the ‘fixed’ theory suggests an inborn and immutable essence that gives a sense that nationality is more than a mere social contract but an ineffable primordial attachment encouraging deep moral commitments.”

Rad and Ginges were able to explore some of these dynamics by tweaking the wording of the question that they put to participants. For instance, they tried out versions in which the child’s birth parents happened to share the participant’s own nationality (while the child’s adopted parents had another nationality), and versions in which this was reversed, so that it was the child’s adopted parents who shared the participant’s own nationality.

Results for these different permutations of the vignette showed that participants generally saw their own nationality as harder to relinquish but easier to acquire, as compared with a foreign nationality (which they saw as easier to lose, but harder to gain). In the era of Brexit and Trump’s “great, great wall” these results may surprise some: “… [F]olk theories of nationality are biased towards immigration and against emigration, perhaps facilitating ingroup expansion,” the researchers said.

At the same time, as you might have predicted, the results showed that, in terms of differences between individuals in the strength of their belief in the different folk theories, those people who more strongly endorsed a fixed or genetic-based theory of nationality tended to have more hostile attitudes toward immigration, even after factoring out any differences in political leanings.

“Future work could build on our results to model social and political factors that may influence the distributive strength of malleable versus fixed conceptions of nationality,” the researchers concluded, “helping us to predict variations in attitudes towards migration across time and context.”

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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