Wednesday 10 February 2016

Swedish Prejudice: immigrants and psychologists


Although I receive the British Journal of Psychology, I rarely read it. I look at the contents list, and sometimes intend to read one of the papers, but then place it safely  in the pile of brochures on my study floor. I do not say this in condemnation of a journal I have read for 45 years, but my interests have diverged from its contents. I pay for it as a a presumed academic requirement, but not out of any excitement.

Today, before putting it aside I came upon a paper with a topic of contemporary interest, which is unusual, so I thought I would look at it in the light of the current mass migration into Europe.

Like parent, like child? Development of prejudice and tolerance towards immigrants. Miklikowska, Marta. British Journal of Psychology, 107.1 (Feb 2016): 95.

First of all, this is a well-conducted study and a clearly written paper, so this is good quality psychology research, and not a weak study to be dismissed for failing to meet contemporary standards.  Second, the discussion includes at least the possibility of genetic transmission of attitudes, so it is not marred by an exclusively social focus, though little is made of the possible genetic causes of the observed effects. Third, the sample of 891 adolescent 13 year olds is sizeable, and there are two waves of data collection two years apart, which give more dependable results.

Despite all this, I still wonder if it does justice to attitudes regarding immigration. I baulk at the idea that an attitude must be a “pre-judgement” if comes to one conclusion (against immigration) but indicates tolerance if it comes to another conclusion (in favour of immigration). Most of us, most of the time, make judgements on the basis of only a few of the possibly available facts. In my view, this is natural. We use rules of thumb (heuristics which make us smart) in order to make the best decisions we can in the time available. More knowledge might make us change our minds, but does not have to, because it may confirm our intial observations. So long as we take in new facts, and don’t get too precious about old hypotheses, we should be able to update our views and make better decisions. Indeed, had we not been able to do so in former times we would not have survived. Being as right as possible, without waiting to be perfectly right, particularly in a fast changing world, has evolutionary advantage. It can be a matter of life or death.

Turning to the paper itself, the attitude questions used in this paper come from Van Zalk et al (2013) and the flavour can be judged by the title “Xenophobia and tolerance towards immigrants in adolescence”.

Prejudice and tolerance towards immigrants were measured with eight items from the Tolerance and Prejudice Questionnaire (TPQ, see Van Zalk et al., 2013). Prejudice was measured with three items rated on a 4-point Likert scale (1 = Don't agree at all to 4 = Agree completely): ‘Immigrants often come here only to take advantage of the welfare in Sweden; Immigrants often take jobs from people who are born in Sweden; It happens too often that immigrants have customs and traditions that not fit into Swedish society’. Tolerance was measured with five items rated on a 4-point Likert scale (1 = Don't agree at all to 4 = Agree completely): ‘Immigrants should have equal rights as Swedes have; Immigrants are good for the Swedish economy; We should have a welcoming attitude toward immigrants that would like to live in Sweden; The Swedish culture gets enriched by immigrants coming to Sweden; In the future Sweden will be a country with exciting encounters between people who come from different parts of the world’.

These questions give respondents more opportunities to agree to tolerant questions than prejudiced ones. An “acquiesence response set” might be more likely to be engengered by these five “positive” questions than the three “negative” ones. Even more importantly, these opposed statements do not cover the range of opinions about immigration. I wonder how respondents would have responded to more general statements like: “Immigration must be to the advantage of local people.”  Many people feel positive about individual immigrants and negative about large scale immigration, and this is a rational position.


If we take adolescent prejudice as an average of 2.26 then the average Swedish adolescent is hovering at the mid-point of slight agreement with the “prejudice” questions and at 2.7 slightly agreeing with the “tolerance” questions. Call it a 0.44 difference in favour of tolerance. Parents at 2.085 for “prejudice” and 2.945 for “tolerance” are 0.86 in favour of tolerance. So, parents are more tolerant than their children.  This either means that adults learn to live with immigrants, or that young people are becoming less tolerant of increasing immigration, which perhaps they see more at school than parents see at work. On the other hand, you might say that the main finding is that parents and adolescents slightly agree with the “prejudice” statements and agree a little bit more with the “tolerance” questions, but only the adults show much of a difference in favour of tolerance. The apparent overall leaning towards tolerance might be because all respondents have 5 opportunities to “say the right thing” and only 3 to “say the wrong thing”.

From a factual point of view, what is the right thing to say about immigrants in Sweden?

As the Swedish state does not base any statistics on ethnicity, there are no exact numbers on the total number of people of immigrant background in Sweden. There are data on nationality, which means that in most studies immigrant children count as Swedes. This is an approach adopted in many countries, which makes it difficult or impossible to follow different genetic groups into the second generation onwards. Indeed, regarding race and religion as unmentionable subjects is intended to make them disappear. If indeed they are of little consequence, then recording them as a matter of course, together with other data, would reveal them to be unimportant, and would give the lie to vulgar prejudice. Pretending not to notice obvious differences smacks of protesting too much, and fearing to find real differences.

Despite the embargos, just to give a flavour of the available data, here is an entry from Wikipedia: As of 2011, a Statistics Sweden study showed that around 27% or 2,500,000 inhabitants of Sweden had full or partial foreign background. Therefore, there should be plenty of studies comparing the various immigrant groups with the local population. In a study by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention in 1997–2001, 25%of the almost 1,520,000 offences were found to be committed by people born abroad and almost 20% were committed by Swedish born people of foreign background. In the study, immigrants were found to be four times more likely to be investigated for lethal violence and robbery than ethnic Swedes. In addition, immigrants were three times more likely to be investigated for violent assault, and five times more likely to be investigated for sex crimes. Those from North Africa and Western Asia were overrepresented.

Here is some work on the employability of immigrants:

APRIL 2014. Catching Up: The Labor Market Outcomes of New Immigrants in Sweden By Pieter Bevelander and Nahikari Irastorza

The report shows that employment rates during newcomers’ initial years in Sweden are relatively depressed for low-educated refugees and migrants who come based on family ties, in comparison to natives and labor migrants from EU countries. Since Sweden's refugees and family arrivals are not selected through employment-related criteria, they are likely to lack locally in-demand skills and are often out of work in the years immediately after arrival. The obstacles these groups face can be exacerbated by certain features of Sweden’s labor market, such as high minimum wages, a relatively small pool of low-skilled jobs, and stringent employment protection for permanent work.

Non-EU labor migrants are also more concentrated in low-skilled jobs and have lower average annual earnings than both EU migrants and natives. Over time, however, all newcomers to Sweden have on the whole improved their employment rates, displayed income growth similar to natives, and moved into middle-skilled positions.



Swedish citizens may well baulk at a policy which results in immigrants taking a decade to come close to Swedish standards.


Swedish citizens may well prefer an immigration policy which requires at least secondary education, or even tertiary education so that immigrants are likely to be beneficial to them immediately, and not after 14 years if at all.

I think it would have been more accurate to have entitled the paper “Attitudes to immigrants in parents and their children”. That would be neutral, which is the scientific ideal. I don’t know what the “right” attitude is, nor does the author, nor has the questionnaire been measured against any factual benchmark of immigrant contribution. The paper does not discuss what proportion of immigrants claim benefits as against the proportion of local claimants, though the above study suggests immigrants actually claim for a longer period. Judging whether the statement: “Immigrants often come here only to take advantage of the welfare in Sweden” is true or false needs to be based on proper evidence.  Presumably the effects of the current immigration will become even clearer two generations from now, so long as proper records are kept. In the mean time, for a factual look at immigrants and their scholastic attainments into the second generation, and indirectly their intellectual abilities, see:

Rindermann H, Thompson J. THE COGNITIVE COMPETENCES OF IMMIGRANT AND NATIVE STUDENTS ACROSS THE WORLD: AN ANALYSIS OF GAPS, POSSIBLE CAUSES AND IMPACT. Journal of Biosocial Science [Internet]. 2014 Nov 7 [cited 2015 Sep 23];1–28. Available from:

The general points and the detailed tables are covered here:

Considering the psychological traits of immigrants and their socioeconomic outcomes, research strongly confirms that immigrant performance is predicted by country of origin. Usually these abilities and achievements are lower than the European norm, even into the second generation. On that basis there are entirely rational reasons for being opposed to unselective immigration, and being in favour of selection by ability and good character.

Back to the paper again. The data were collected in 2010 and 2012, before the latest surge of immigration, so the attitudes may have changed somewhat, and the findings may be out of date. The paper is out of date, and no fault of the author. She submitted her manuscript in October 2014, the revised version in January 2015 and it has seen the light of day only in February 2016, 4 years after data collection. This is no way to disseminate science. Back to the paper again. Immigrants were excluded, which is a pity, since their attitudes would refine the interpretations placed on the overall results. Immigrants are often lukewarm about further immigration, particularly about other immigrant groups. This is rational. The benefits they get from settled and wealthy societies are threatened if many more supplicants come to seek those same benefits, benefits which include higher-paid work.

Back to the paper again. Parents and adolescents influenced each other in their attitudes, and parents influenced their children more if their children saw them as supportive. The author concedes that the overall effect might be due to an inherited predisposition, but feels socialisation is the key. This leaves aside the findings on the heritability of social attitudes. Picking a relevant paper at random, it is at least worthwhile considering whether the apparent interaction of parent and child in coming to an opinion might be due to shared heritable characteristics.

Social influence constrained by the heritability of attitudes. Nicholas Schwab. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 66, August 2014, Pages 54–57

In her Conclusions and Implications the author says: “Given the adverse effects of prejudice for the well-being of immigrants, interventions aimed at decreasing adolescents’ anti-immigration attitudes have been designed. They may be informed by this study and use inter-generational transmission as a social engineering tool.” This attitude on the part of the author certainly puts the needs of immigrants higher than those of residents. She deems immigration to be correct and anti-immigration to require social engineering. Perhaps social engineering is seen as A Good Thing in Sweden, though it raises fear in Anglo Saxon lands.

Anyway, her specific policy implication provokes the response: “Given the adverse effects of unselective immigration on the well-being of local people, interventions aimed at decreasing pro-immigration attitudes should be designed”. Pro-immigration might be based on the mistaken pre-judgement that anyone from anywhere must be better than the locals. Correcting this misperception would be of benefit to Swedish citizens.

What would a neutral implication be? “Groups intending to sway people’s attitudes about social policies like immigration should consider the effects of  inter-generational transmission”. This would allow pro- and anti-immigration activists to use the findings of this paper, such as they are, to boost their campaigns.

I think that the author has pre-judged the issue of immigration. I do not know, and she cannot know, what the current effects of new immigrants will be. She has decided it is a good thing, but gives no references in her paper. Both she and I can look at the data on immigration to Sweden and to Europe, so as to get a general indication of the consequences of immigration. I certainly think that any study of presumed prejudice should give the basic evidence on which the truth is based: the truth from which the prejudice is revealed.

In summary, I think that the standard social psychology viewpoint of “prejudice” versus “tolerance” is not helping us understand social attitudes to immigration. Prejudice is to pre-judge something without having considered it, and to hold to that opinion despite all evidence to the contrary. Setting aside whether Swedish citizens really want to have the levels and types of immigration they are getting (as free people they could decide against it for whatever reason) there is evidence of the costs paid for immigration in terms of the decade it takes for the new arrivals to fully contribute, as compared to the locals. The “prejudice” questions in this survey do not do justice to the citizen who feels that, on balance, the current immigration policy is not to their advantage, nor to the advantage of their children.

The paper is an example of a careful analysis of the specific results obtained, but the concept of “prejudice” reduces the proper understanding of how parents and their children come to form their political and social views, whilst a more open and neutral attitude to attitudes could have strengthened it.


  1. "Prejudice is to pre-judge something without having considered it, and to hold to that opinion despite all evidence to the contrary." That's an interesting definition, though it wouldn't be mine. The "prejudging" point is precisely right: otherwise I'd say that prejudice about a person (which is what concerns us here) consists in forming opinions about their likely characteristics in the absence of knowledge about them as individuals - that's the "pre-judging" point - based instead on knowledge of groups they belong to. Thus one comes across prejudice based on race, class, wealth, sex, colour of hair, family, education, girth, and whatnot. The question of which prejudices are held to be vile is largely a matter of political power: those with the power define certain prejudices as vile while indulging in whichever others suit them.

    1. Pre-judging on basis of group membership is a reasonable heuristic. You can be guided by a mean, even if the standard deviation is large, and it reduces the standard error of prediction.

  2. Also worth mentioning that older generations overwhelmingly rely on the MSM, and let's just say that the Swedish media is not exactly the best place for getting accurate information on immigration (indeed they have even gone so far as to block British sites reporting on their own "Sweden Yes!" stories... Saudi/Chinese style censorship from a country that gets top marks on all the "respectable" Freedom House-style ratings. But I digress).

    Anyhow, speaking of Sweden Yes... the younger generation is much more Internet savvy - and has more free time, to be fair - so their are also exposed to Twitter shitlords and the chans and all those nativist and Alt Right memes (unfortunately the more intellectual sites such as this one are largely ignored by everyone, relatively speaking) and as such are far more skeptical of slogans about the glories of tolerance and vibrant diversity.