Folk theories of nationality and anti-immigrant attitudes

Mostafa Salari Rad, Jeremy Ginges

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Nationality governs almost every aspect of our lives, including where we may live and travel, as well as our opportunities for education, healthcare and work. It is a common-sense social category that guides us in making inferences about the social world 1-4 . Nationalism has been extensively studied within the social 5-16 and cognitive sciences 17-25, but there has been little empirical investigation into folk theories regarding what determines someone's nationality. In experiments carried out in the United States and India (N = 2,745), we used a variant of the switched-at-birth task 26-31 to investigate the extent to which people believe that nationality is determined by biology or is a malleable social identity that can be acquired 32-34 . We find that folk theories of nationality seem remarkably flexible. Depending on the framing of the question, people report believing that nationality is either fluid or fixed at birth. Our results demonstrate that people from different cultures with different experiences of migration and different explicit stereotypes of their own nation may share similar folk theories about nationality. Moreover, these theories may shape attitudes towards immigrants - an important public-policy issue 35-37 . Belief that nationality is malleable is associated with more positive attitudes towards immigrants even when holding ideology constant.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)343-347
Number of pages5
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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