Folk theories of nationality and anti-immigrant attitudes

  • Nature Human Behaviourvolume 2pages343347 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-018-0334-3
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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 world1,2,3,4. Nationalism has been extensively studied within the social5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16 and cognitive sciences17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25, 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 task26,27,28,29,30,31 to investigate the extent to which people believe that nationality is determined by biology or is a malleable social identity that can be acquired32,33,34. 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 issue35,36,37. Belief that nationality is malleable is associated with more positive attitudes towards immigrants even when holding ideology constant.

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This research was funded by a grant to J.G. from the US National Science Foundation (SES 1559387). We thank D. Medin, S. Atran, L. Hirschfeld, W. Hirst and J. Miller for their feedback during the research, and K. A. Lee, C. Shackleford and J. Smith for research assistance. The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Department of Psychology, New School for Social Research, New York, NY, USA

    • Mostafa Salari Rad
    •  & Jeremy Ginges
  2. Department of Psychology and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • Mostafa Salari Rad


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M.S.R. and J.G. conceived the presented idea. Both authors developed the theory, planned and carried out the data collection, performed the computations, verified the analytical methods, discussed the results and contributed to the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mostafa Salari Rad.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary References

  2. Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Data 1

    The complete dataset of all studies in CSV format (2,745 rows and 13 variables)

  4. Supplementary Data 2

    The dataset for the supplementary experiment in Supplementary Section 2.3