Fear and learning in the immigration debate

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Principal investigators:

Shana Kushner Gadarian

Syracuse University

Email: sgadaria@maxwell.syr.edu

Homepage: https://sgadaria.expressions.syr.edu/

Bethany Albertson

University of Texas at Austin

Email: balberts@austin.utexas.edu

Homepage: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/government/faculty/ba6392

Sample size: 384

Field period: 4/11/2008-4/28/2008


In this project, we use the issue of immigration to explore the role of anxiety in responses to political appeals. According to the Affective Intelligence theory, anxiety motivates citizens to learn and pay more attention to news coverage. Literature in cognitive psychology demonstrates that high stress and anxiety is associated with a tendency to pay closer attention to threatening information. We predict that anxious citizens will seek more information but that they will seek out and be attracted to negative information. In an experiment we induce fear about immigration and then subjects have the opportunity to search for additional information in a website designed to mimic online news sources. The website has both immigration and non-immigration stories, and the immigration stories are split between threatening coverage and non-threatening coverage. We find that anxious subjects exhibit biased information processing; they read, remember, and agree with negative information.


1. Priming anxiety about immigration will lead citizens to seek out information and that anxious citizens will seek more information than those who are not primed to be anxious.

2. Manipulating anxiety about immigration will lead to biased information processing, where anxious individuals pay the closest attention to negative and threatening information.

Experimental Manipulations

Respondents were assigned to either a treatment condition that induced worry over immigration or a control condition where respondents were asked to list their thoughts about immigration. To manipulate anxiety, subjects were asked to think about the debate in the U.S. over immigration and do a listing exercise. Rather than rely on a stimulus such as a campaign ad or a news story about immigration to evoke emotion in our respondents, we used a technique common to psychological studies of emotion where subjects are asked to focus on objects, people, or events that cause them the intended emotion. In order to evoke anxiety about immigration, respondents in the treatment condition read the prompt, “Now, we’d like you to take a moment to think about the debate over immigration in the United States. When you think about immigration what makes you worried? Please list everything that comes to mind.” In the control condition, respondent were asked to simply list everything that came to mind when they thought of immigration.

In the next step of the study, respondents were invited to read news stories and informed that they would answer questions about the stories later in the survey. Each respondent was presented with a story set consisting of six headlines linked to full articles – four of which were about immigration and two of which were on unrelated topics. Of the immigration stories, two stories framed immigration positively and focused on the benefits of immigration and how immigrants themselves enrich the United States. The other two immigration stories reflected the more typical threatening and negative framing of immigration that dominates news coverage of immigration – immigrants take resources and jobs from Americans and contribute to crime in large cities. Subjects also had the ability to opt out of reading anything about immigration – respondents could choose to ignore all of the stories and proceed to the second part of the survey or read one of the two unrelated stories on childhood obesity or an ancient language. All of the stories were uniform in length and the story headlines appeared in random order on respondents’ screens. We tracked which stories respondents read, in what order, and how long they spent on each story.


Information processing: We tracked which stories respondents read, in what order, and how long they spent on each story.
Evaluation: We asked respondents which stories they remembered and whether they agreed with those stories in two separate open-ended questions.

Summary of Results

We hypothesized that bias could creep into information processing in three ways: what information people choose to look at, what they remember, and how they engage with what they have learned. We found that anxious people were more likely to read, remember, and agree with negative information. By tracking actual behavior in the experiment, we separate exposure from attention and find that anxious people were biased toward negative information in both stages. They were more likely to look at information that portrayed immigration in a threatening manner, and among people who looked at negative information, they were more likely to remember it.