How to Manipulate the Public’s Perception of Immigrants

Trump’s VOICE campaign may work by exploiting a common psychological bias.

In an effort to rile up support for increased deportations, Donald Trump has begun a campaign to exploit our subconscious biases. One aspect of this campaign is to publish a weekly list of crimes perpetrated by immigrants. Cognitive science suggests that this list — similar to the “Criminal Jew” lists of Nazi Germany — will almost certainly succeed in garnering anti-immigrant sentiment.

Humans generally struggle to understand probabilities. We tend to greatly exaggerate the likelihood of low probability events. This may be a product of our evolution. For example, consider two cavemen that hear a noise. One is paranoid and goes on the defensive, while the other relaxes after calculating that the noise is harmless. If the noise happens to be a sabertooth tiger, the paranoid caveman is more likely to survive, and reproduce, than his more probabilistically oriented counterpart.

Rather than computing probabilities like a machine, we use tricks and rules of thumb, known as heuristics, to infer them. But these inferences are often wrong.

One heuristic that often leads us astray is the “availability heuristic,” which leads us to overestimate the probability of events that easily come to mind. These types of events are generally dramatic, personal, or recent.

Insurers often exploit this bias. I wouldn’t buy insurance on my iPhone if couldn’t imagine myself ever needing it. But I would be much more inclined to buy insurance if I destroyed my previous iPhone by jumping into a pool. I may insure my phone even though I should have learned my lesson and be less likely to repeat my mistake in the future. But because the event is personal, it will easily come to mind and I will overestimate my likelihood of needing the insurance.

Similarly, a recent study found that purchases of earthquake insurance tend to increase right after earthquakes. But as time passes people stop renewing these policies. Assuming that an earthquake in one year has no positive correlation with an earthquake in the next year, buying earthquake insurance right after an earthquake, and then not renewing the policy, makes little sense statistically.

But earthquakes more easily come to mind right after they occur than if one hadn’t occurred for years. Those who bought insurance immediately after an earthquake likely had inflated perceptions of another earthquake’s occurrence. These perceptions made them more likely to purchase insurance until the event faded into the past, when they stopped renewing their policies. After floods across California in 2017, 2018 will likely be a great year for flood insurance salesmen.

The Criminal in Your Mind

Trump’s team is taking advantage of this cognitive bias in his effort to denigrate immigrants in the popular perception.

These weekly reports will highlight dramatic crimes. Those exposed to the weekly list will be able to easily think of examples of immigrants committing crimes. This will lead them to perceive immigrants as being much more likely to commit crime than they actually are.

The fact that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than those born in the United States is irrelevant. Our perceptions are often more important to policy than facts and statistics. If much of the population believes that immigrants are disproportionately more likely to commit crimes, policymakers will face only limited pushback to their deportation policies.

Trump’s VOICE campaign is taking advantage of a subconscious, exploitable bias to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment. Unfortunately, simply being aware of our biases may not succeed in eliminating them.

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