Fear of immigrants and sharks: from stories to statistics

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Dennis Dew, guest columnist

Why do people fear immigrants?

If you listen to certain political advertisements, rally speeches or talk shows, it would be understandable to fear immigrants.

One fear-invoking example comes from the tragic story of Kathryn Steinle. The 32-year-old was shot and killed in San Francisco in 2015, when she was standing next to her father. Steinle was allegedly shot by a man previously deported to Mexico five times, and her story paints an intense and disturbing image that is impossible to ignore.

Steinle’s death is one vivid case that has been cited by presidential candidates including Jeb Bush and Donald Trump — Trump used her death as an example of why we need a wall at our southern border in his acceptance speech as the Republican nomination for president this summer.

Evocative stories such as Steinle’s killing tend to occupy a space front and center in our minds once we’ve heard them, and those stories color our perceptions.

Emotions and memory become intertwined in a brain structure called the amygdala. This brain structure allows emotional events to be easier to recall and therefore easier to pay attention to than other less heartfelt sources of information. The emotional and memorable nature of compelling anecdotes is why journalists seek them out for a juicy story

But, while statistical data more accurately represents crime rates than a group of anecdotes, it is far less convincing to us. How does this disconnect happen?

Social psychologists refer to humans’ preference for vivid anecdotes over more complete statistical information as the “availability heuristic.” It is the same process that makes us fear a shark attack when swimming in the ocean, but not to fear dying in a crash when driving a car to the beach — despite the fact that the chance of being killed in a car accident is more than 700 times greater than being killed in a shark attack. It’s a mind glitch.

Vivid anecdotes of violent crime also color our perceptions in another way. This impression is magnified when stories equating immigrants with criminals are repeated over and over by politicians.

Continued pairing of one item (such as immigrants) with another negative item (such as a violent crime) almost inevitably leads to the first stimulus automatically evoking emotions initially only paired with the second stimulus. In psychology we call this continued pairing and resultant response “classical conditioning.”

You may recall Pavlov’s dog salivated at the ring of a bell after the dog’s food and bell were continually paired. The dog couldn’t help but learn the association because it occurs automatically and without intention.

In the minds of many, immigrants may become equated with violent crime automatically and non-consciously due to the repeated pairing some politicians continue to make. In fact, research shows that pairing a relatively small group of people such minorities with a negative behavior such as violent crime creates an even more powerful association than more common groups. It appears to me we are being classically conditioned to fear immigrants.

We have data on immigrants. We know that the vast majority — documented and otherwise — do not commit violent crimes.

But, it is a peculiarity of our minds that through vivid anecdotes and continued pairing of immigrants with violence, we begin to automatically associate the two. In a way, we cannot stop our minds from drawing the connection, but if we know it is occurring we need not stereotype or discriminate against immigrants. We do have control.

At a forum entitled “Fear of an Immigrant Nation: Prejudice, Stereotyping & Discrimination” on Thursday I’ll be exploring this problem and offer advice on how to overcome it. It’s part of Mount Mercy University’s Fall Faculty Series: “Building Walls, Building Bridges: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation.”

• Dr. Dennis Dew is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Mount Mercy University. He is speaking Thursday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. in the Flaherty Community Room in a free public forum sponsored by the faculty at MMU as part of its annual fall series.

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