Consequences and Corrections of Misperceptions in Intergroup Relations

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In an age witnessing the coinciding of increasing connectedness facilitated by the advent of the internet and social media and growing mobility due to technological efficiency gains and rising economic prosperity, optimistic observers might expect to find accompanying increases in societal harmony and mutual understanding among social groups. In contrast to such an optimistic vision, contemporary societies are experiencing expanding polarization between political and societal groups and a widening appeal of exclusionary ideas that had marked more contentious times. The scholarly literature has developed a number of economic and individual psychological explanations for this divergence of the idealized and observed path of contemporary societies, but at root the phenomenon derives from collective identities of “us” and “them” which are based on perceptions of in- and outgroups. Such perceptions are subject to well-studied biases that tend to elevate the ingroup and debase the outgroup.

While such biased perceptions and their connection to intergroup relations are well understood in relation to racial minority-majority relations, this is not the case for the increasingly important relations between native- and foreign-born populations. Similarly, for relations among political subgroups in a given society such misperceptions have been well documented, but it the most efficacious strategy to tackle such misperceptions remains an open debate. Specifically, scholars debate in how far misperceptions that fulfill social-psychological functions of affirming individuals’ group memberships can be overcome with corrective information or whether such attempts lead individuals to retreat into their groups’ corner. With prior evidence for both predictions, the literature lacks a clear understanding of the scope conditions occasioning either reaction. The studies in this dissertation set out to address these gaps providing evidence from representative cross-national surveys and experimental work at the intersection of perceptions, immigration, and intergroup relations.

Chapter 2 investigates the role of misperceptions in shaping the relations between the native- and foreign-born population, asking first whether such misperceptions extend beyond innumeracy and how such misperceptions affect the native-born populations attitudes toward immigration. Descriptive analyses of the native-born population of ten European countries reveal widespread misperceptions about migrants’ motives. In multilevel models, these misperceptions predict threat perceptions and concern about immigration as well as anti-immigration policy preferences and voting behavior. Chapter 3 departs from the existence of group-based misperceptions and examines the conditions under which such misperceptions are amenable to corrective information or conversely liable to deteriorate when challenged by such information. In an online experiment designed to approximate real world exposure to counter-attitudinal information, I manipulate the level of perceived choice in exposure and engagement with such information participants have. Results are suggestive for the role of choice in moderating the effect of corrective information on misperceptions and support the theorized mechanism of counter-arguing for backfire effects, in that extreme conservatives prompted to reflect on counter-attitudinal information more strongly endorse misperceptions.

In sum, this dissertation provides evidence that misperceptions about outgroups extend to the perceptions of immigrants where they are associated with broader anti- immigration attitudes and behavior. Such immigration related misperceptions are generally amenable to corrective information except for those individuals who strongly identify with a group whose status depends on the misperception, in which case attempts to correct the misperceptions carry the risk of backfiring.







Merhout, Friedolin (2019). Consequences and Corrections of Misperceptions in Intergroup Relations. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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