Donald Trump’s first week in office has been as controversial as anticipated. His most reported on move was his signing of an executive order banning individuals from 7 countries (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya) from entering the U.S.. While this is a temporary ban for 90 days, it is expected to be merely a precursor to a broader ban to be imposed in the near future. The number of people directly affected by this ban is approximately 134 million, with the vast majority of this huge number of people being of the Muslim faith. Many are seeing this as a manifestation of Trump’s desires to ban, or severely restrict, Muslims from entering the U.S., rather than accepting his claim that it is related to national security. As deeply troublesome as this move is, an even more alarming directive came from Trump’s administration in the same week.
Amongst the executive orders that Trump has signed this week, was the following directive:
“To better inform the public regarding the public safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions, the Secretary shall utilize the Declined Detainer Outcome Report or its equivalent and, on a weekly basis, make public, a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and the jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor a detainer.”
In other words, his administration will see to it that every week, a list will be published and publicized highlighting the crimes committed by “illegal” immigrants. This is quite literally one of the moves the Nazis took against the Jews, as they pressed ahead with their campaign to demonize and oppress this group of people. The move was designed to shift public opinion, by constantly bombarding them with negative information about Jews. It was seemingly painfully effective in doing this, as non-ideological Germans began associating Jewishness with criminality. This move also served to further dehumanize German Jews.
Stoking Up Cognitive Biases
Cognitive biases are predictable and systematic errors in thinking that often lead people to make incorrect judgements. They provoke us to act less rationally than we are usually capable. They often occur because our brain attempts to simplify information, so as to be more efficient in processing it. Unfortunately, they often lead to our brain making errors, some of which can be costly. Two types of cognitive bias come to mind when we consider Trump’s “criminal list”.
Confirmation bias describes what happens when we have an idea or conviction, for example Irish Syrians are extremely good looking, and we then proceed to notice, interpret and recall, in a biased way, all the information that we come across that confirm this idea. We also simultaneously disregard information that conflicts with this idea. Effectively, our brains sustain and strengthen this biased idea by overvaluing information that supports it, while undervaluing information that challenges it. Among the fallouts of this weekly list will be that individuals who already carry with them the idea that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, break the law and are dangerous, will have their opinion continuously reinforced. This will serve to further entrench the biases that they have against immigrants. This will be happening despite the facts that show that immigrants, both legal and “illegal”, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans; the American Immigration Council’s 2015 report on this, titled “The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States”, is but one source that rubbishes the claim that immigrants are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour.
More worryingly, this list will trigger another cognitive bias termed the availability cascade, also known as the illusory truth effect. This cognitive bias describes what happens when we begin believing a position, regardless of it’s accuracy, because we are constantly exposed to it. Many politicians rely on this bias with enthusiasm during their campaigns, repeating ceaselessly the core idea that they want to protect. While the confirmation bias might be effective in strengthening xenophobic attitudes amongst individuals who are already harboring such views, the availability cascade is potentially more effective in swaying people who are neutral on the topic. Four years of weekly exposure to crimes being committed by “illegal” immigrants, without the same being done for other groups of residents, and you are likely to find that more people will be in agreement with Trump’s views on this. The availability cascade holds the potential to win over new believers in Trump’s xenophobic attitudes.
Overestimation of Muslim Population
An example of just how effective these manipulations of our cognitive biases is found in one study, carried out by the market research company IPSOS, that was widely reported on in 2016. The study asked participants in a range of countries one question that is of particular relevance here; how many Muslims are there in your country? The study found that people consistently thought that there were significantly more Muslims in their country, with France’s overestimation being close to 25% higher than the actual population. In the US, the participant average was that Muslims made up 6% of the population, while in fact they just make up 1%. While the study did not delve into the reasons behind the consistent overestimation, it does not much deliberation to offer up the idea that this is in large part due to the medias constant fixation on Islam and Muslims, evoking a host of cognitive biases in the average person.
Just the Beginning?
That the so-called “leader of the free world” is espousing such open xenophobia is critically worrying, however, moves such as this that target swaying the minds of millions of Americans could be indicative of something darker on the horizon. Singling out any group of people, and highlighting the crimes that are committed by a minority of members in that group, is an obnoxious yet effective tool in changing public opinion. While we have grown accustomed to certain strands of the media in doing this, seeing the Presidential office employing these means is particularly unsettling. It is becoming increasingly important that those with a voice use it to promote the reality that immigrants are a valuable asset to the society that hosts them.