New research examines people’s hidden attitudes to minorities in Ireland

New research published today reveals the gap between what people say in public about their attitudes to minorities in Ireland, and what they say when afforded anonymity. The study challenges previous assumptions about people’s views, and has implications for policy approaches to foster interculturalism.

The new study published by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (‘the Commission’) and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) entitled “Hidden versus revealed attitudes: A list experiment on support for Minorities in Ireland” uses an innovative research technique to survey a nationally representative sample of just over 1,600 people. This ‘list experiment’ approach compares anonymously expressed attitudes to those expressed more openly, to seek to understand the extent to which people are concealing controversial opinions when polled.

For this list experiment, people were asked about their views on Black or Muslim people coming to Ireland as an example to illustrate discrepancies between open and concealed attitudes to minority groups.

Findings show that the extent to which people conceal their negative views on immigration depends on the minority group being asked about, as well as the gender, age and educational background of the respondents.

Key findings from this survey include:

Hidden and revealed attitudes to different groups

  • Social pressures to exhibit tolerance are much greater when people are asked about Black people than when asked about Muslim people coming to Ireland.
  • Whereas 66 per cent of people openly supported more Black people coming to Ireland, this dropped to 51 per cent when respondents could conceal their attitude. Fewer people openly supported more Muslim immigration, with no evidence that people conceal their attitudes.

Concealment of views varies by education

  • While previous surveys have shown that people with higher educational attainment are more positive towards minorities in Ireland and elsewhere, this report reveals that this is largely because highly educated people who hold negative attitudes are more likely to conceal them.
  • Among people with third-level education, over one quarter (27 per cent) do not support more Black people coming to Ireland but conceal it, and just under one fifth conceal (22 per cent) negativity towards Muslims coming to Ireland.

Concealing negative views varies by age

  • Concealing negative views is almost twice (19 per cent) as prevalent among the younger group (aged 18-49) as among the older group (11 per cent) (aged 50 or over) with respect to the question on Black immigration.
  • However the younger group are more supportive than the older group even when asked anonymously (59 per cent vs. 40 per cent).
  • There are no age differences in anonymously expressed support for Muslims coming to Ireland - just over half (around 53 per cent) of each age group support this.

Concealing negative views varies by gender, but this depends on the minority group

  • 21 per cent of men conceal negative opinions towards more Black people coming to Ireland, compared to 10 per cent of women.
  • Women conceal negativity towards Muslims to a much greater extent than men. Around one fifth (21 per cent) of women hold but conceal lack of support for more Muslim people coming to Ireland, but there is no evidence that men conceal negative attitudes towards Muslims in this survey. Men’s anonymously expressed support for Muslims coming to Ireland is higher than women’s support.

The findings challenge results from standard surveys, and bring forward policy learnings:

The prevalence of positive attitudes towards some minority groups may be heavily influenced by people giving what they think is the socially desirable response– in other words, by people hiding their true opinions in survey interviews, in order to come across more favourably.

Negative attitudes which are not expressed openly may affect decisions made regarding minority groups ‘behind closed doors’ or via anonymous acts - voting or recruitment being two prominent examples.

Reporting hidden attitudes does not mean that openly expressed hostility to (or support for) certain groups is not important. After all, much of social life is carried out in the open. For minority groups, it is a very different experience to live in a society that is openly intolerant of them than one where negative views may be held but not expressed.

Work to foster interculturalism also needs to understand and to combat more subtle, covert or coded forms of prejudice and discrimination.

Salome Mbugua, Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission member stated:

“The report comes at a moment when the relationship between individual attitudes and systemic racism has been cast into sharp focus.

The research shines a light into understanding the frequently subtle, covert or coded forms of prejudice and discrimination, which people in Ireland can face.

A better understanding of the relationship between people’s hidden and revealed attitudes can inform how we as a society identify and face racism and racial discrimination at all levels.”

Lead author of the report, Frances McGinnity of the ESRI stated:

“Concealing of negative attitudes towards the Black ethnic group supports other research in Ireland about the  higher levels of disadvantage and discrimination experienced by this  group in Ireland, allowing us to gain a better understanding of the situation, and how it might be addressed."