Us vs. Them?: How Threat Shapes Opinions about Immigration

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Principal investigators:

Ted Brader

University of Michigan



Nick Valentino

University of Michigan



Elizabeth Suhay

Lafayette College



Sample size: 300

Field period: 10/21/2003-11/05/2003


Political psychologists have employed the concept of "threat" to explain attitudes and behavior in various domains. We hypothesize that realistic threats will be most powerful when paired with cues about negatively stigmatized outgroups. We also posit that group cues are powerful because they trigger an emotional process that strengthens behavioral and attitudinal shifts. In the absence of an emotional mediator, the threat is likely to be ineffective. Moreover, emotions should influence how closely a person attends to news of a threat. In an experiment, we manipulate a news story discussing the impact of immigration (positive or negative) and the ethnic origin of an immigrant in the story. The negative (i.e. threatening) story, especially when paired with a Hispanic cue, generates greater opposition to immigration among white Americans, an effect mediated by fear and anger. Anxious citizens also rely more on the news and less on prior beliefs in forming opinions.


H1: News stories that emphasize the costs or threat (to Americans) posed by immigration will increase opposition to immigration, while emphasis on benefits or opportunities stemming from immigration will decrease opposition.
H2: News stories with Hispanic immigrant cues, especially when linked to threat, will produce greater opposition to immigration than news stories with European immigrant cues.
H3: The effects of threatening information or cues on political attitudes and action will be mediated by emotional responses to the issue.
H4. Anxiety will decrease the impact of predispositions on immigration attitudes and increase the impact of contemporary information (i.e., the news story).

Experimental Manipulations

Subjects were randomly assigned to one of five conditions, including a control group, in which they were asked to read a news story. The 2 x 2 treatment design manipulated the story to suggest that increasing levels of immigration were either threatening or beneficial to American communities (i.e., negative vs. positive news emphasis) and to call attention to an immigrant of either Hispanic (Mexican) or European (Russian)origin. The ethnic identity of the immigrant was explicitly mentioned in the text and implied by an accompanying photograph. Subjects in the pure control group read a news story about a government initiative to track cell phones as a cause of automobile accidents.


The key dependent variables include both attitudinal and behavioral measures. Attitudes include evaluations of the economic, social, and cultural impact of immigration, and support for specific policies as well as immigration in general. Behavioral items include requests for more information from specific sources and authorization to send an email to members of Congress indicating support or opposition to immigration.

Summary of Results

Negative news increased opposition to immigration, but positive news failed to reduce it. Indeed, while the perceived financial threat varied with news emphasis, the perceived threat to "way of life" rose in response to any immigration story. Hispanic cues increased the perceived gap in immigrant origins (Latin America vs. Europe) and improved recall. Identity cues did not otherwise affect attitudes directly, but did interact with news emphasis: The negative Hispanic story caused the greatest opposition, the positive Hispanic story caused the least. As expected, the effects were mediated by emotional responses: The Hispanic-threat interaction effect was mediated by anxiety and anger, while the direct effect of news was mediated by anger and hope. Finally, anxious subjects were affected more by the news and less by predispositions (e.g., party ID) than less anxious subjects; feelings of enthusiasm or shame caused greater reliance on predispositions, without altering the effect of news.


This investigation reveals significant theoretical promise in the notion that emotional states mediate the impact of threat, and political communication more broadly, on attitudes and behavior. Several important questions remain. First, how broad is the effect of group cues on anxiety across issue domains? Are some threats more susceptible to group cueing than others?Second, how does the group cueing process work among members of the stigmatized group? Third, are other emotional states such as anger, hope, aversion, and pride triggered by the presence of group cues and, if so, how do the implications for attitudes and behavior differ? Future research is required to pursue the empirical implications of emerging theories of emotions and politics. The answers to these questions are likely to have a profound impact on understanding how politicians influence public opinion and political behavior.

Additional Information

The sample was restricted to non-Hispanic whites. In the two photographs of immigrants, only the head differed. The images were pre-tested separately to ensure ethnic contrast but similarity in other traits (e.g., attractiveness, wealth, criminality, etc.). The behavioral questions were presented so that subjects would believe they were actually requesting information or authorizing a message to Congress on their behalf.


Preliminary findings have been presented at the American Politics Seminar of the Institute for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University (February 2004), the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago, IL (April 2004), and the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Chicago, IL (September 2004).

Brader, Ted, Nicholas A. Valentino, and Elizabeth Suhay. 2008. "What Triggers Public Opposition to Immigration? Anxiety, Group Cues, and Immigration Threat." American Journal of Political Science 52: 959-78. [Reprinted in Political Psychology, edited by Howard Lavine, Sage Publications, 2010]