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Do immigrants really think differently?

Submitted by on 30 Mar 2016 – 12:48

While immigrants to the European Union may show different psychological characteristics compared to the mainstream majority population, Dr Alex Mesoudi, Associate Professor in Cultural Evolution, University of Exeter, UK says “these differences substantially reduce in just a single generation, allaying fears that immigrants will inevitably fail to integrate.” Read on to find out why

Alex Mesoudi-smallInternational migration is increasing. The Mediterranean migrant crisis saw over 430,000 migrants arrive in Europe by sea between January and August 2015, already double the number of migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in all of 2014 [1]. Beyond this crisis, many EU member states are receiving the largest numbers of long-term international immigrants in decades. 636,000 people migrated to the UK in the year ending June 2015, up from 574,000 the previous year [2]. Germany received 1,465,000 immigrants in 2014, up 19% on 2013 [3].

While many people celebrate the economic prosperity and cultural enrichment that is brought by immigrants, there are also many voices of concern. An oft-cited fear is that immigrants will fail to integrate with mainstream European society due to differences in the way people from different cultural backgrounds think, or differences in the social values they hold.

According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey [4], 77% of the UK public want immigration levels reduced. 45% said immigrants undermined Britain’s cultural life, versus 35% who said they enriched it. Half of them agreed that one cannot be “truly British” unless one has British ancestry (51% agree) and shares British customs and values (50% agree). Similar survey results can be found across Europe, and the success of political parties such as UKIP or the Danish People’s Party, who received 12.6% and 21.1% of votes in the 2015 British and Danish general elections respectively, are indicators of these concerns over immigration.

But is there any scientific evidence for the idea that people from different cultural backgrounds think differently and hold different social values and attitudes? And if so, are such differences in thinking styles fixed, such that immigrants remain permanently different? Recent research in the behavioural sciences shows that the answer to the first question is ‘yes’ and the second is ‘no.’

Not everyone is W.E.I.R.D.
Until recently, psychologists assumed that everyone everywhere had the same fundamental ways of perceiving the world, themselves, and other people. The problem with this was that until recently, virtually all psychological research had been conducted on people from what Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia have labelled Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic – or “WEIRD” – countries [5]. When psychologists started measuring the psychological attributes of people from less WEIRD, non-Western countries – primarily East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea – surprising cultural variation emerged [6,7].

Take object categorisation. When a given sets of objects – say cow, chicken and grass – Westerners typically use formal rules to categorise them, grouping cow and chicken (because both are farm animals), while East Asians typically categorise based on relationship, grouping cow and grass (because cows eat grass). When explaining other people’s actions, Westerners typically appeal to people’s internal dispositions or motivations – for example, explaining poor exam performance as due to a student’s low intelligence or their laziness – while East Asians typically appeal to wider situational factors, such as a lack of educational support. People from WEIRD countries are typically more individualistic: they are motivated more by their individual goals and agree more with statements such as “It is important that I do my job better than others.”

People from less WEIRD countries are typically more collectivistic: they are motivated more by group goals and agree more with statements such as “Family members should stick together, no matter what sacrifices are required.” Cultural variation has also been found in people’s sense of fairness, morality, responses to aggression, susceptibility to visual illusions and personality [6,7]. In sum, people everywhere do not think, reason and perceive in the same way; there is substantial cultural variation in psychological processes.

What about immigrants?
At first sight, this seems to support concerns that immigrants – particularly those from non-Western, less-WEIRD countries – may struggle to integrate into European society due to a mismatch between different thinking styles. Indeed, research into workplace satisfaction and performance suggests that while neither Western-typical traits (e.g. individualism) nor non-Western typical traits (e.g. collectivism) are more or less effective in absolute terms, there must be a match between person and context. Managers in the U.S. perform better on workplace tasks when training emphasises personal performance, matching their individualistic social orientation, while Chinese managers do better on the same tasks when training emphasises group performance, matching their collectivistic social orientation [8]. This suggests that a collectivistic person – say, an immigrant from South or East Asia – might struggle in a Western, individualistic workplace environment.

The thinking styles of East London British Bangladeshis
This leads to the second question. Are these thinking styles and social values fixed, or can they change? And if so, how quickly? To find out, Kesson Magid, Delwar Hussain and myself, recently examined the psychological profiles of British Bangladeshis living in East London [9]. This group is notable in being highly geographically concentrated and culturally cohesive compared to many other ethnic minorities. Indeed, British Bangladeshis constitute 32% of the population of Tower Hamlets, the borough where our study was conducted.

We found that 1st generation British Bangladeshis, born and raised in Bangladesh before migrating to the UK aged 14 or older, show many of the same psychological attributes as other non-Westerners. For example, 1st generation British Bangladeshis on average use more situational and less dispositional explanations for other people’s actions.

Crucially, however, Figure 1 also shows that 2nd generation British Bangladeshis, who were born and raised in the UK, are intermediate between their 1st generation parents and non-migrants. We found the same one-generation shift for other measures such as individualism and collectivism.

Our results indicate that psychological characteristics are not fixed, and can rapidly and substantially shift from heritage values to values typical of wider society. Similar one-generation shifts have been found in Asian Americans [6].


We can draw several conclusions from this research. First, there are differences in the way people from different parts of the world think and in their social values. These differences are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but are simply different ways of perceiving our physical and social environments. Second, fears that immigrant communities will fail to integrate due to fixed and intrinsic psychological or social differences are unfounded. All the evidence suggests that people are extremely adept at absorbing the local thinking styles and social values of their wider society. This is seen even in culturally cohesive migrant communities such as British Bangladeshis in East London.

Finally, immigrants need not shed their cultural identity in order to facilitate successful integration. The 2nd generation British Bangladeshis in our study were almost all Muslim and fluent Bengali speakers. Yet they still show substantial shifts in psychological attributes towards typically “British” values.

It is easy, perhaps natural, to see immigrants as fundamentally different to “us”, but our and others’ research shows that “they” become part of “us” surprisingly quickly and easily.

Alex Mesoudi’s research is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (www.esrc.ac.uk). For more details of the research mentioned in this article, please visit www.thinkingstylesproject.com.

1. International Organization for Migration (2015) http://missingmigrants.iom.int/en/record-432761-migrants-including-refugees-seeking-asylum-european-union-have-crossed-mediterranean.
2. Office for National Statistics (2015) http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/migration1/migration-statistics-quarterly-report/november-2015/sty-net-migration.html.
3. Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) (2014) https://www.destatis.de/EN/PressServices/Press/pr/2015/09/PE15_321_12711.html.
4. Ormston, R. & Curtice, J. (2015) British Social Attitudes: The 32nd Report. London, UK: NatCen Social Research.
5. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. & Norenzayan, A. (2010) Most people are not WEIRD. Nature 466, 29–29.
6. Heine, S. J. (2011) Cultural psychology. New York: WW Norton.
7. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. & Norenzayan, A. (2010) The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, 61–135.
8. Earley, P. C. (1994) Self or group? Cultural effects of training on self-efficacy and performance. Administrative Science Quarterly 39, 89–117.
9. Mesoudi, A., Magid, K. & Hussain, D. (in press) How do people become W.E.I.R.D.? Migration reveals the cultural transmission mechanisms underlying variation in psychological processes.