Prejudice and myths cloud view of asylum seekers

November 11, 2011

More needs to be done to expose the myths surrounding asylum seekers to break down the prejudices that exist against this group, according to a new Murdoch University study.

The research showed that people with a negative attitude towards asylum seekers are less likely to remember factual and accurate information about the treatment or situation of asylum seekers.

It follows a previous Murdoch research project that found that prejudiced people need to be provided with the correct information several times before it is absorbed.

Senior psychology lecturer Dr Anne Pedersen, who supervised the study by Murdoch Honours student Jared Croston, said it showed the importance of the media in educating the public about these issues.

“We know it takes time to get prejudiced people to accept the truth so it is vital that the media – where most of them get their information from – present the facts accurately,” she said.

Mr Croston surveyed 186 residents in Perth about their attitudes to asylum seekers and their acceptance of a series of myths. First he gauged the level of prejudice of study participants, and then asked whether they believed or disbelieved 11 commonly held myths about asylum seekers.

These myths included that asylum seekers are safe in Indonesia or Malaysia and don’t need to come to Australia; Australia takes more asylum seekers than most Western countries; only asylum seekers who apply through the right channels are genuine and seeking asylum without authorisation from Australian authorities is illegal under Australian law.

Participants were then given the correct information, debunking the myths, and asked to recall what they had been told.

Dr Pedersen said: “Highly prejudiced participants were significantly less likely to accurately recall the correct information that debunked the myths.

“It would appear that prejudiced participants lack the motivation to absorb the information properly.

“What we know is that giving prejudiced people information just once is not effective. They need to be given the correct information more often.

“People who feel negatively towards asylum seekers find ways to hang onto their prejudice, such as denigrating the source of information. That is why these people are more likely to accept the information if it comes from multiple sources.”

This study supported previous findings which showed that highly prejudiced participants were more likely to accept myths about asylum seekers as being true.

Dr Pedersen said the problem was compounded by the fact that when people believe they share a common view with others, they are comfortable speaking out.

“We’ve found prejudiced individuals are more likely to over-estimate their support in the community and are vocal in expressing their opinions,” she said.

“Conversely people who are accepting of asylum seekers may fall silent as they feel they are in the minority. As a result prejudiced people often have an influence that is disproportionate to their numbers.”

Despite a commonly held belief that asylum seekers are not genuine, research has shown that over the last decade, more than 90 per cent of people arriving by boat are legitimate refugees

Read about asylum seeker myths here.

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Media contact: Hayley Mayne
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Categories: General, School of Psychology, School of Psychology Research
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