Migrant communities think more like non-migrants after just one generation, study suggests

East London living. James Cridland/flickr.com, CC BY

A common fear among the general public in many Western countries is that immigrants have ways of thinking or social values that are fundamentally different to them, and that these differences prevent them from integrating into Western societies.

Our new research, published in PLOS ONE, suggests such fears are misplaced.

We found that British Bangladeshi migrants in East London shifted towards the thinking styles of the wider non-migrant population in just a single generation. Our study also provides insights into how and why people from different parts of the world think and reason differently.

We were motivated by recent findings in the field of “cultural psychology” that show striking variations between cultures in what had long been assumed to be universal ways of thinking and reasoning.

Here’s an example. In the 1990s, Nick Leeson infamously made unauthorised speculative trades that eventually brought down Barings Bank, Britain’s oldest merchant bank. How would you explain Leeson’s actions? Cultural psychologists have found variations between cultures in how people answer this question.

People from the West, it is suggested, would typically say that Leeson was greedy or dishonest. Psychologists call these “dispositional” explanations, which involve intrinsic aspects of people’s personality or character.

But people from East Asia might explain Leeson’s actions as resulting from a corrosive banking system that lacks proper checks, and which values profits above all else. These are typical “situational explanations”, which refer to the external situation or context.

In 2010, the psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan collected many examples of cultural variation like this, including variation in whether people punish cheats, what people consider to be moral and immoral, reactions to aggression, and susceptibility to perceptual illusions.

They coined the acronym WEIRD to describe people from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic countries. While the vast majority of psychology experiments are conducted on WEIRD people, they are far from representative of our species as a whole.

Immigrants in Tower Hamlets

This takes us to the East London borough of Tower Hamlets. Around 32% of Tower Hamlets residents identify as having Bangladeshi heritage. We were interested in whether the same cultural differences that had been found when comparing East Asians and North Americans could also be found in British Bangladeshis in East London.

We administered a battery of psychological tests, previously shown to vary cross-culturally, to 286 East Londoners. Of these, 108 were first generation British Bangladeshis, born and raised in Bangladesh and who moved to the UK after the age of 14. A further 79 were second generation British Bangladeshis, born and raised in the UK to two first generation migrant parents. The remaining 99 were non-migrants, born and raised in the UK to UK-born parents of European heritage.

First, we compared first generation British Bangladeshis with non-migrants. Some of our measures showed the differences you might expect. First generation migrants were more likely to endorse situational explanations for others’ actions, and less likely to endorse dispositional attributions, compared to non-migrants. For example, first generation migrants were less likely to say that an athlete who had been caught taking steroids was “naturally a cheating person”, and more likely to blame the excessive competitiveness of athletics.

But other measures, such as how people sort objects into categories, or measures of their own self-esteem, showed no differences between migrants and non-migrants. Also, first generation migrants were slightly more individualistic than non-migrants, despite this being a more typically “Western” trait.

On those measures where we did find a difference between first generation migrants and non-migrants, we found that the second generation were half-way between their first generation parents and non-migrants. This can be seen in the figure below, which shows the average score for the different groups according to dispositional (“the athlete is a natural cheat”) and situational (“athletics is too competitive”) explanations to the questions.

First generation British Bangladeshis are more likely to explain other people’s actions in terms of situations, and less likely in terms of dispositions, than non-migrants. Second generation British Bangladeshis are intermediate. Author provided

Thinking styles are malleable

Our results show that thinking styles are not fixed from birth and can rapidly shift in just a single generation towards those typical of the wider non-migrant population.

This supports the idea that our species evolved to be highly flexible and rapid at adopting the local norms and values – and in this case, thinking styles – of our social environments: we adapt culturally, rather than genetically. More research is needed to pinpoint exactly how this cultural adaptation occurs – perhaps through mass media messages, or schooling.

Our research shows that first generation British Bangladeshi migrants are substantially similar in psychological characteristics to non-migrants, and second generation British Bangladeshis are even more similar due to the one generation shift. We think that these findings should counter fears that migrants will fail to integrate due to incompatible thinking styles or social values.