Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 15, 2020

Refugees in the Media: Are We Seeking Information or Validation?

by Adrian Lueders
Image of a group of people walking across landscape at dusk

It was an ordinary Monday evening on the last day of August, 2015. I had just grabbed some groceries at the train station in Salzburg, Austria when the first trains arrived. I eventually learned that hundreds of refugees had been stranded in Salzburg on their way from Hungary to Germany. Most of the refugees carried little more than the clothes on their backs. Within the next couple of hours, hundreds of cots were placed in the hallway, turning the station into a provisional refugee accommodation. This night was the beginning of the most serious European migratory challenge since the end of World War II.

In the ensuing months, the so-called “refugee crisis” dominated the public and political discourse. European media was polarized in depicting refugees either as a cultural and economic opportunity or as a threat to host countries. Surveys indicated that a growing number of Europeans believed that governments were managing the refugee situation poorly. Perhaps as a consequence of this view, demands for stronger border policies were voiced and taken up by parties on the political right.

In the context of such tensions, we began a research project to examine how media contributes to the to the emergence of prejudicial beliefs about refugees. Specifically, we wondered whether seeking a great deal of information that depict refugees as a threat might reinforce prejudice and promote “us vs. them” beliefs.

We tested two ideas. First, people should develop less favorable perceptions of refugees to the extent that they feel threatened by the overall refugee situation. After all, research shows that feelings of uncertainty, ostracism, insignificance, inferiority, or a lack of personal control—all of which are experienced as threatening—can foster prejudice toward other groups.

Second, we examined whether feelings of threat increase people’s desires to validate their viewpoints by paying more attention to media sources that validate their own views. In the United States, this might mean tuning in to Fox News for conservative citizens—or tuning in to NPR for more liberal citizens. This selective consumption of attitude-consistent information about refugees might help people feel more secure for several reasons. Seeking attitude-consistent media gives people the impression that their image of refugees as well as their broader worldviews are correct. Moreover, people who turn to media that supports their views don´t feel alone with their beliefs because they perceive that many other people hold similar views. Finally, having their beliefs confirmed by the media may lead people to feel superior to those who see things differently. In sum, we expected a vicious cycle in which people who are susceptible to feeling prejudice toward refugees may also be prone to seek out one-sided information that bolsters and supports their existing views.  

We tested these ideas, first, by asking research participants to rate how threatened they felt by the influx of refugees. Then, participants rated and selected information from a pool of media coverage about refugees. In a last step, we measured attitudes toward fellow Austrians or Germans as well as prejudice towards refugees.

Our results showed that people who felt more threatened by the refugee situation were less likely to agree with an essay suggesting that refugees were a positive opportunity for Europe. Furthermore, people who felt more threatened by refugees chose to read more articles that had an anti-refugee headline than a refugee-friendly headline. Finally, this preference for anti-immigrant messages was associated with greater prejudice toward refugees.

These findings have important implications for the relationship between the kinds of media people watch and read and how prejudiced they are.  People do not select the media they consume randomly but rather choose media that validates their worldviews. Seeking information that confirms our existing views of the world may help people maintain feelings of psychological security, but it may do so at the expense of a balanced, multi-sided reflection on a topic. In fact, people who confirm their negative assumptions about refugees through one-sided media isolate themselves from information that could reduce their feelings of threat by painting refugees in a more favorable light.

If we wish to reduce prejudice against refugees, what should we do? If media selection biases are fueled by feelings of threat, strategic communication strategies should seek to prevent the emergence of threat in the first place. By pointing out the plight of refugees and the necessity of refugee resettlement, media may foster a better understanding of the realities that refugees face. Moreover, media may try to integrate different viewpoints and opinions and also give refugees a voice to share their experiences, needs, and ambitions. Simultaneously, social media providers should take responsibility for stopping the spread of inflammatory stories and misinformation. 

From a very different perspective, research on the “contact hypothesis” suggests that getting to know refugees personally would decrease stereotyping and prejudice toward refugees in general. However, as the increase in violence towards refugees in Europe has shown, contact between citizens and refugees must be implemented in a way that supports integration and open dialogue.


For Further Reading

Lueders, A, Prentice, M, & Jonas, E. (2019). Refugees in the media: Exploring a vicious cycle of frustrated psychological needs, selective exposure, and hostile intergroup attitudes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49: 1471– 1479. Doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2580

Echterhoff, G., Hellmann, J. H., Back, M. D., Kärtner, J., Morina, N., & Hertel, G. (in press) Psychological Antecedents of Refugee Integration (PARI). Perspectives on Psychological Science. Doi: 10.31234/osf.io/nrvdj

Jost, J. T., van der Linden, S., Panagopoulos, C., & Hardin, C. D. (2018). Ideological asymmetries in conformity, desire for shared reality, and the spread of misinformation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23, 77-83. Doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.01.003


Adrian Lueders works as postdoctoral researcher at the psychological department of the University of Clermont Auvergne, France. His current research focuses on psychological processes underlying attitude-polarization. 

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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