Immigration Attitudes and Subjective Well-Being: A Matter of Identity?

Abstract

Drawing on previous literature that has found individuals’ subjective well-being (SWB) to be correlated with social and political attitudes, we study the relationship between individuals’ attitudes towards immigration and their SWB. We treat immigration attitudes as an aspect of individuals’ self-image and hypothesize that, through a mechanism of moral satisfaction, greater immigration-friendliness is associated with greater SWB (H1). We further hypothesize that greater disparity of immigration attitudes yields social antagonism and as such is associated with less SWB (H2). Finally, we hypothesize that the SWB benefit (if any) from immigration-friendliness increases in the disparity of the respective attitudes, as greater disparity permits individuals to differentiate themselves from others, thus contributing to their sense of identity (H3a). Alternatively, the SWB benefit from immigration-friendliness (if any) may increase in the degree of consensus (lack of disparity), as greater consensus may indicate the existence of a social norm, conformity with which yields SWB through social approval (H3b). Using 227,596 observations from 35 European countries, 2002–2018, we find multivariate correlational relationships consistent with H1, H2 and H3a.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Alternatively, it has been suggested to measure the validity of a social norm by the prevalence (average level) of a behavior or attitude, rather than by unanimity (lack of division). In studying the consequences of “unemployment as a social norm”, Clark (2003) operationalized the validity of the presumed norm by the level of unemployment in an individual’s social environment and found the well-being repercussions from individually being unemployed to be lower when average unemployment is higher. In our empirical analysis of the relationship between immigration-friendliness and SWB we experimented with measures of prevalence and found this relationship (as well as SWB itself) to be not significantly related to the average level of immigration-friendliness. To keep the paper concise, our discussion does not further pursue the issue of prevalence of immigration-friendliness.

  2. 2.

    In order not to confound robustness with respect to exclusion/inclusion of control variables with changes in the sample, we chose to use a fixed sample for all specifications even if a smaller set of variables included in some specifications would have permitted to use a larger sample.

  3. 3.

    We experimented with an alternative diversity measure, entropy (Rao 1982), which accounts not only for the size distribution of categories, but for their distance. Specifically, the entropy measure computes the population-weighted total (standardized) distances between all groups and can be interpreted as the expected distance between two randomly selected individuals. In our life satisfaction regressions the entropy of immigration attitudes is never nearly significant and seems to have no explanatory value. This is consistent with the view that the basis for individuals’ alienation experience is simply the fact that they belong to different groups, regardless of their distance. As argued by Montalvo and Reynal-Querol (2005), “the dynamics of the ‘we’ versus ‘you’ distinction is more powerful than the antagonism generated by the distance.”.

  4. 4.

    The relevant variable is elicited in the ESS as follows. Care: Now I will briefly describe some people. Please listen to each description and tell me how much each person is or is not like you: It’s important to her/him to help the people around her/him. She/he wants to care for their well-being. The response options were: very much like me (1), like me (2), somewhat like me (3), a little like me (4), not like me (5), not like me at all (6). We reverted the coding such that “very much like me” = 6, …., “not like me at all” = 1.

  5. 5.

    Since (in comparison to the macro-level controls), the micro-level controls are of less substantive interest, they are omitted in Table 1 for space considerations. Results are available upon request.

  6. 6.

    The share of immigrants serves as a proxy for possible effects of immigration on compositional amenities.

  7. 7.

    We owe this point to an anonymous reviewer.

  8. 8.

    As suggested by a reviewer, two further points may be relevant when it comes to identity benefits from immigrant-friendliness. One is that people identifying with the extreme right (“Altright”) movement, who obviously will display low levels of immigration-friendliness, possibly may derive a positive social identity from the link with Altright. Another is that it may matter if an immigrant-friendly individual lives in a relatively tolerant or intolerant context (and vice versa). While we acknowledge these possibilities, our data does not permit capturing identification with the Altright movement nor the degree of tolerance in society.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to two anonymous reviewers for insightful comments.

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Correspondence to Heinz Welsch.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2 Summary statistics
Table 3 Correlations between main variables

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Welsch, H., Bierman, P. & Kühling, J. Immigration Attitudes and Subjective Well-Being: A Matter of Identity?. J Happiness Stud (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00284-y

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Keywords

  • Subjective well-being
  • Life satisfaction
  • Attitudes
  • Immigration
  • Identity
  • Antagonism

JEL Classification

  • I31
  • F22
  • D74
  • D63
  • Z13