The Immigration Bill and Pluralistic Ignorance

The New York Times is reporting the results of a new poll with some surprising results. In particular, the poll is showing strong support for the amnesty/legalization provisions of the proposal--provisions that have sharply divided the Republican party. Here is the money quote:

Two-thirds of those polled say illegal immigrants who have a clean employment record and no criminal history should gain legal status as the bill proposes: by paying at least $5,000 in fines and fees and receiving a renewable four-year visa.

Many Republican lawmakers have rejected this plan, calling it an amnesty that rewards immigrants who broke the laws when they entered the United States. But the poll showed that differences were not great between Republicans and Democrats on this issue, with 66 percent of Republicans in the poll favoring the legalization proposal, as well as 72 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents.

Most of those polled agree that illegal immigrants should eventually be allowed to apply to become American citizens. But they also said former illegal immigrants should be considered for citizenship only after legal immigrants who have played by the rules and been waiting in bureaucratic pipelines.

Two-thirds of Americans in the survey favor creating a guest-worker program. More than half say temporary workers should be allowed to apply to become permanent immigrants and eventually American citizens if they have a strong work history and a clean criminal record. About a third of those who favor a guest worker program disagree, saying guest workers should be required to return home after their temporary work period is over.

Read it all.

Given all the fury in the Republican base over the last few days, this is a surprising result. heck, it is hard to find many divisive issues that garner agreement by two-thirds of Americans, and the fact that two thirds of Republicans support amnesty is a big surprise.

Of course, one explanation for the surprise is that the poll got it wrong. I think that a more likely explanation for the surprise is "pluralistic ignorance"--we assume that more Americans oppose amnesty because those who oppose it are so vocal.

Mark Buchanan recently had an interesting essay (subscription required) on pluralistic ignorance. I think that his insights are quite applicable to the immigration debate:

Psychologists coined the term “pluralistic ignorance” in the 1930s to refer to this type of misperception — more a social than an individual phenomenon — to which even smart people might fall victim. A study back then had surprisingly found that most kids in an all-white fraternity were privately in favor of admitting black members, though most assumed, wrongly, that their personal views were greatly in the minority. Natural temerity made each individual assume that he was the lone oddball.

A similar effect is common today on university campuses, where many students think that most other students are typically inclined to drink more than they themselves would wish to; researchers have found that many students indeed drink more to fit in with what they perceive to be the drinking norm, even though it really isn’t the norm. The result is an amplification of a minority view, which comes to seem like the majority view.

In pluralistic ignorance, as described by researchers Hubert O’Gorman and Stephen Garry in a 1976 paper published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “moral principles with relatively little popular support may exert considerable influence because they are mistakenly thought to represent the views of the majority, while normative imperatives actually favored by the majority may carry less weight because they are erroneously attributed to a minority.”

What is especially disturbing about the process is that it lends itself to control by the noisiest and most visible. Psychologists have noted that students who are the heaviest drinkers, for example, tend to speak out most strongly against proposed measures to curb drinking, and act as “subculture custodians” in support of their own minority views. Their strong vocalization can produce “false consensus” against such measures, as others, who think they’re part of the minority, keep quiet. As a consequence, the extremists gain influence out of all proportion to their numbers, while the views of the silent majority end up being suppressed.

Read it all (subscription required).

So what is the lesson in all this? Simple--ignore the noisy minority, and do the right thing. The public is far more pragmatic and compassionate than the phone calls, letters, and demonstrations would have your believe.

When I was a new member of the Legislature, Senator David Bartlett gave me sage words of advice--don't worry about the politics, do the right thing, and if you can explain your vote articulately, voters will understand even if they disagree with you. That's pretty sound advice for Congress as it debates the immigration bill.


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