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      Painting All Foreigners With One Brush? How the Salience of Muslims and Refugees Shapes Judgements


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          Attitudes towards foreigners are widely researched, most frequently in survey studies. However, in that context it is often unclear which attitude object respondents have in mind, and thus what their answers refer to. This paper uses a representative sample of 3,195 Germans who reported which groups they think of when thinking about foreigners living in Germany. We found that Germans disproportionately think of groups who are Muslim, and that such salience is associated with more negative attitudes towards “foreigners.” This holds true when controlling for attitudes towards Muslims; in fact, thinking of Muslim groups when thinking about foreigners moderates the relationship between anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner attitudes. The relationships were weaker when respondents think of Turks, a large and long-standing minority in Germany, suggesting an attenuation of the links through familiarity or intergroup contacts. No relationship was found between thinking of refugees and attitudes towards foreigners. Implications for research are discussed, particularly regarding the interpretation of self-reported attitudes towards foreigners and the study of populist strategies.



          People’s attitudes towards foreigners matter; they shape policy and public debates, and arguable also fuel conflict between social groups. Such attitudes are often measured by simply asking people how they feel about ‘foreigners’. However, it is typically unclear who the respondents think of in making their assessments. If they only think of specific groups, and if these groups differ systematically from the foreign population in a country, then the reported attitudes might be shaped by the presence of specific groups in the minds of the respondents (their “mental presence”) as much as by attitudes towards any one group. In addition, in such case, attitudes towards foreigners could be manipulated by changing the mental presence of some groups.

          Why was this study done?

          Earlier research in different countries had suggested that in surveys, the foreigners that come to mind first for respondents are associated with their attitudes towards all foreigners. We now wanted to replicate that research and test three things: whether these findings also holds when all groups that respondents had in mind are considered rather than just the first, if thinking of multiple groups (and thereby having a more diverse mental representation of foreigners) has a positive effect and whether the effect appears because attitudes towards the specific groups that are mentally present are then generalized towards all foreigners. We focused on the effect of thinking of refugees and of Muslims as those were the two most relevant dimension of cultural distance in Germany at the time when the research was conducted.

          What did the researchers do and find?

          We based our research on data from the German General Social Science Survey (ALLBUS) that surveyed a representative sample of 3,195 German citizens in 2016 about their attitudes towards foreigners and asked what groups they think of when thinking of ‘foreigners.’ We found that Muslims are much more present in respondents’ minds than in Germany’s foreign population, in fact, 81% of respondents first thought of a Muslim group while Muslims make up 37% of Germany’s foreign population. We then analyzed whether people who thought of Muslim groups or of refugees reported more negative attitudes than those who thought of less culturally distant foreigners. Those who thought of Muslims indeed reported more negative attitudes towards foreigners overall, particularly when they thought of groups other than Turkish people.

          Contrary to our expectations, thinking of refugees was not generally associated with attitudes towards foreigners, only thinking specifically of ‘asylum seekers’ was associated with more negative reported attitudes towards all foreigners. Thinking of a greater number of groups was consistently associated with more positive attitudes. Finally, given that anti-Muslim attitudes are stronger and more widespread than anti-foreigner attitudes, we tested whether the negative effect of thinking of Muslims appears because anti-Muslim attitudes are generalized to all foreigners when respondents think of Muslims as typical foreigners. This indeed appeared to be the case.

          What do these findings mean?

          There are two main implications of our findings. Firstly, when it comes to researching public opinion towards foreigners, it appears to be very important to consider who respondents think of when considering how they feel about foreigners. If this is neglected, respondents with identical attitudes towards all specific groups might report different levels of anti-foreigner prejudice due to their (possibly fleeting) associations with the term. Secondly, the fact that thinking of foreigners as Muslims is associated with closer links between anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner attitudes indicates how populist movements that portray foreigners as Muslims might succeed and why they can likely be counteracted by movements that portray foreigners as more diverse and, in many cases, less culturally distant to the host population.

          Translated abstract

          Einstellungen gegenüber Ausländern werden häufig mit Befragungen untersucht. Bei der Analyse von Antworten ist allerdings häufig unklar, auf welches Einstellungsobjekt sich die Befragten beziehen und wie die Antworten dementsprechend zu interpretieren sind. In diesem Artikel verwenden wir eine repräsentative Stichprobe von 3.195 deutschen Staatsbürgern, die in ALLBUS 2016 angaben, an welche Gruppen sie denken, wenn sie an in Deutschland lebende Ausländer denken. Wir stellten fest, dass die Deutschen überproportional oft an muslimische Gruppen denken und dass das Denken an muslimische Gruppen mit negativeren Einstellungen gegenüber „Ausländern“ verbunden ist. Das gilt auch, wenn in den Analysen für die spezifische Einstellung gegenüber Muslimen kontrolliert wird. Der Effekt tritt teilweise durch eine Moderation auf: Wenn muslimische Gruppen zentraler Teil des Ausländerbegriffes sind, ist der Zusammenhang zwischen Islam-feindlichen und ausländerfeindlichen Einstellungen stärker. Der Zusammenhang war hingegen schwächer, wenn die Befragten an Türken dachten (eine große und etablierte muslimische Minderheit in Deutschland). Dieser Befund weist auf eine Abschwächung des negativen Effekts der mentalen Präsenz von muslimischen Gruppen durch Vertrautheit oder Kontakte zwischen Gruppen hin. Entgegen unserer Erwartungen fanden wir keinen generellen Zusammenhang zwischen der Zentralität von Flüchtlingen im Ausländerbegriff und der Einstellung gegenüber Ausländern; einzig wenn Befragte spezifisch an „Asylbewerber“ dachten, war dies mit negativeren Einstellungen gegenüber Ausländern verbunden. Insgesamt war das Denken an eine größere Zahl von Gruppen, und damit die Komplexität des Ausländerbegriffes, mit positiveren Einstellungen assoziiert. Implikationen für die Forschung werden diskutiert, insbesondere im Hinblick auf die Interpretation von Selbstberichten von Einstellungen gegenüber Ausländern und die Analyse populistischer Strategien.

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              Identity Salience and Psychological Centrality: Equivalent, Overlapping, or Complementary Concepts?


                Author and article information

                J Soc Polit Psych
                Journal of Social and Political Psychology
                J. Soc. Polit. Psych.
                28 February 2020
                : 8
                : 1
                : 246-265
                [a ]Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London , London, United Kingdom
                [b ]Department of Psychology, University of Exeter , Exeter, United Kingdom
                [3]Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
                Author notes
                [* ]Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW, United Kingdom. l.wallrich@ 123456gold.ac.uk
                Copyright @ 2020

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) 4.0 License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

                : 18 July 2019
                : 21 November 2019
                Original Research Reports

                Begriffsinhalt,salience,Einwanderung,immigration,Stereotypen,category content,foreigners,survey research,stereotypes,Umfragen


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