Actual vs. perceived diversity and anti-immigrant attitudes


Author: Göksu Celikkol

Social psychological research suggests that high amount of immigrants can improve the relations between the majority and the newcomers or make them worse.  A recent study shows that the perceptions of diversity play a significant role in attitudes towards immigrants among the majority.

In terms of intergroup relations in contemporary Western societies, one of the biggest concerns is increasing hostility and negative attitudes towards immigrants. Especially in Europe, the proportion of immigrants is raising greatly, hence the relationship between outgroup size and intergroup relations has also become a hot topic within social psychology. How might the actual and perceived size of immigrant groups influence attitudes towards them?

Numbers and perceptions do not always meet

One strand of research which is in line with the famous Contact Theory (Allport, 1954), suggests that greater number of immigrants can lead to more positive attitudes towards immigrants among the majority group. The theory assumes that the more there are immigrants the bigger are the chances for positive contacts which, for one, increase the possibility for positive attitudes.

Another strand based on the Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1954) suggests the opposite assuming that when the number of immigrants increases, so do the perceptions of competition and threat which, in turn, might lead to negative attitudes and even conflicts between the groups.

When evaluating our environment we tend to rely on information and cues that we get from different sources, such as from the media and political discourse. Such accounts may overestimate migration rates or portray immigration as a dangerous and threatening issue. Furthermore, the diversity rates at a country level may not correspond to the diversity rate at an individual’s more immediate context, such as neighborhood, school or workplace. Thus, individual’s subjective perceptions of the number of immigrants may differ from the actual diversity rates.

Objective vs. subjective diversity – or both?

The statistics regarding immigrant population can be based on different definitions of an “immigrant” and, thus, are not fully objective in the sense that they cannot exhaustively describe the diversity of the population. However, statistical information on immigrant rates in a given context is often referred to as actual or objective diversity as opposed to subjective perceptions

Among social psychological studies on attitudes towards immigrants, either objective or subjective cultural diversity has been examined as a predictor of outgroup negativity. Yet, there are also studies that acknowledge the importance of taking into account both the statistics and people’s perceptions.

In our recent research (Celikkol, Mähönen & Jasinskaja-Lahti, 2017), me and my colleagues tested the simultaneous effect of both objective numerical diversity and subjective evaluations of diversity on intergroup relations. We used a nation-wide survey data that was gathered from Finnish majority group members (N = 335). We divided the survey respondents into three groups according to the statistical diversity of the region where they lived[1]. We then examined their perceptions of diversity and attitudes towards immigrants.

We found that both objective and subjective diversity predict anti-immigrant attitudes and outgroup trust.

Diverse or not? Ambiguity leads to less positive attitudes

Those participants who lived in regions with moderate diversity but perceived high levels of diversity in their neighborhood had the most negative attitudes and highest levels of distrust towards immigrants. We concluded that populations living in contexts that have moderate amounts of immigrants, or recently started to receive more immigrants, are more prone to experience a rise in anti-immigrant attitudes than those already living in diverse contexts. One psychological explanation for this finding is that in these kinds of environments the cues regarding the size of the immigrant outgroup are ambiguous, which might lead to increasing subjective uncertainty and less positive attitudes.

While we are living in an era of social media and public and political discourse on immigration and cultural diversity is at peak, interventions that target to reduce the feelings of uncertainty and threat in moderately diverse contexts that are just starting to adjust to the presence of larger immigrant groups should be planned. That way, it would be possible to eliminate the risk of heightened intergroup negativity and counterbalance the negative portrayals of immigration that are evident in our everyday lives.


[1] Southern Finland represented the high diversity context (5.7% of immigrants, according to Statistics Finland 2014), the Southwestern Finland and Western and inland regions made up the moderate diversity context (2.8% of immigrants). Eastern and Northern Finland with Lapland formed the low diversity context (1.8% of immigrants).



Allport, G. W. 1954. The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Celikkol, G., Mähönen, T.A., & Jasinskaja-Lahti, I. (2017). The interplay between objective and subjective ethno-cultural diversity in predicting intergroup relations. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 43(9), 1399–416.

Sherif, M. (1954). Experimental study of positive and negative intergroup attitudes between experimentally produced groups: robbers cave study. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, Intergroup Relations Project.

Other studies on this topic:

Hooghe, M., & de Vroome, T. (2015). The perception of ethnic diversity and anti-immigrant sentiments: a multilevel analysis of local communities in Belgium. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38(1), 38-56.

Schlueter, E., & Scheepers, P. (2010). The relationship between outgroup size and anti-outgroup attitudes: A theoretical synthesis and empirical test of group threat and intergroup contact theory. Social Science Research, 39, 285-295.