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Examining negative attitudes toward undocumented Latinos

High levels of identification with a group which feels superior and entitled over other groups may help explain negative attitudes towards undocumented Latino immigrants, according to a study published in this month’s issue of Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Science.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Patricia Lyons, is a professor of psychology at Mountain View Community College. Lyons says she was shocked to find very little research on attitudes toward Latino immigrants, a topic which has interested her since graduate school. “Equality and social justice are what drive me in social psychology.” She explains that her environment – Lyons teaches at a predominately Latino community college in Texas – as well as immigration marches in Dallas a while back really fueled her work.

Lyons and other researchers had previously developed a scale to measure attitudes of U.S. citizens towards Arabs, and other studies had found group narcissism to predict negative attitudes toward whites and blacks in Britain as well as Jews in Poland.

But the effects of group-level narcissism on attitudes towards Latinos, specifically undocumented Hispanic immigrants, had not been investigated.

“We wanted to distinguish that from patriotism, which is a more benign version of this,” says Dr. Jared D. Kenworthy, associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington and one of the study’s authors. “This is the more macho version. It’s the feeling that the group is superior to every other group and is entitled to be treated better than any other group,” he says. Kenworthy points out that this kind of behavior is found in white power or black power groups.

Lyons and her colleagues began the study in 2011 at the University of Texas at Arlington. The data was collected through an online questionnaire of 223 participants were students who were enrolled in a psychology course and did not identify as Latino.

RELATED: Studies hope to show the emotional toll on children of undocumented immigrants

The purpose of the study was to identify psychological predictors that might be associated with different attitudes toward undocumented Hispanic immigrants in the United States. Researchers found that “group-level narcissism” may be a key predictor for Americans who will feel or behave negatively toward undocumented Latinos.

The segment “Sean Hannity Loves America” on the Colbert Report, Kenworthy says, is a comedic version of what they were doing in the their lab. The test asked participants, for instance, to rank how strongly they agreed with statements such as “If America ruled the world it would be a better place” and “America is the best country in the world.”

National in-group identification happens when a person’s individual identity is strongly tied to and dependent on their membership in a group, in this case, being an American. Previous research has found that strong in-group identity is not necessarily a predictor of negative attitudes toward other groups. The researchers found, however, that attitudes changed when a strong in-group identity was paired with an average or above average group narcissism. In this case, negative attitudes toward undocumented Latino immigrants were more likely.

RELATED: Legislation to criminalize undocumented immigrants takes center stage today

The researchers believe that undocumented Latinos can represent perceived threats to those high in narcissism at the national in-group identity level. Because of the rhetoric in the immigration debate, some believe that undocumented immigrants create a burden on tax-paying American citizens by exploiting America’s medical, social, and educational services. Undocumented immigrants can also pose “symbolic threats,” which are threats to a group’s worldview– values, norms, beliefs, and customs. “This is speculation so far,” says Lyons. “We probably should try to measure the exposure [to the immigration debate].”

The study also points out that negative attitudes toward undocumented Latino immigrants in the U.S. have been associated with banning social services for undocumented immigrants, beliefs regarding police brutality against undocumented immigrants, and “political scapegoating that covers up racially motivated negative stereotypes and discrimination.”

Lyons say that studies like these can create interventions and help groups get along better. “For us, as social psychologists, we want to understand the mechanism that predict’s people’s behavior,” she says.“Ultimately, we’d like to see how to improve attitudes towards groups that are different than us.”

Erika Sanchez NBC Latino avatar

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and writer living in Chicago.  You can find her on TwitterFacebook, or www.erikalsanchez.com

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