How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

What causes prejudice against foreigners, and is there an antidote?

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A street in a busy shopping district of Oslo this week, after a bombing in the Norwegian capital city and a shooting massacre on a nearby island left at least 76 people dead.

In light of the recent mass murders in Norway perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik, a domestic terrorist motivated by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias, Scientific American has an interesting Q&A with Steven Neuberg, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

Neuberg discusses the psychology of anti-immigrant prejudice, how it can turn deadly, and what lies at its root. An excerpt:

We're highly dependent on people in our own groups. In fact, one could argue that our highly ultrasocial, interdependent form of group living may be the most important human adaptation. People tend to be invested in members of their groups, to have ongoing histories of fair exchanges and reciprocal relations, to treat one another reasonably well, to create and follow a set of agreed-upon norms, and thereby build up trust.

Outsiders aren't going to have that same built-up investment in us or our group. Because of this, we tend to believe that people who are foreign to us are more likely to pose certain kinds of threats: We believe they may be more interested in taking our resources, more likely to cheat us in exchanges, to violate our norms and values, to take more than their fair share, and the like. These perceptions of threats are linked to negative emotions such as anger and moral disgust that contribute to anti-immigrant prejudices.

Feelings of contempt toward people believed to be "less" than others "can serve to motivate extreme actions," Neuberg said. Are there antidotes? The forming of friendships across ethnic lines helps, he said, as does the integration of immigrants into the fabric of their new society.

It's a timely scientific take on an emotionally charged and complicated issue. For those who like their weekend reading on the heavier side, it's a great read.

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