“Bloom where you’re planted” or why people dislike (e)migration

By Alexander Kustov (Yale University)

At the initial stage of the Brexit campaign, when surveyed about the right of their own citizens to freedom of movement in the EU, most UK respondents were positive. However, only some agreed with a similar question about the right of other EU citizens to live and work in the UK. While such self-serving inconsistencies are rather common among the public (Weeden & Kurzban, 2017), it is interesting that far from everyone is even willing to let their own fellow citizens live abroad.

Why do so many people shun human mobility between countries? Many scholars across social sciences have argued that natives oppose migration either because it threatens their interests or simply because they are prejudiced against foreigners and ethnic minorities (Hainmueller & Hopkins, 2014). Nonetheless, perhaps due to its current politicization in Europe and the United States, most of the policy dialogue and research is focused on public attitudes toward immigration of foreigners to their countries — not international mobility in principle. My new research in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies is among the first studies of public opposition to emigration of natives from their countries — the other side of the issue salient in many middle- and even some high-income regions of the world (Kustov, 2020).

As I demonstrate across a variety of surveys and places, concerns about issues such as “brain drain” are not limited to pundits and policymakers. In fact, in some countries the overwhelming majority thinks of emigration as a serious problem and wants their government to reduce it — which may even include limiting people’s own economic opportunities and political rights to exit. Furthermore, these attitudes may have real-world consequences. In Lithuania — where more than 10% of population left for other EU countries since 2004 — the surprising victory of the Peasants and Green Union (LPGU) party in 2016, for instance, was attributed to their anti-emigration stance. Most important, however, I show that exploring the roots of these sentiments may in turn also shed a light on our understanding of immigration politics.

To do my research, I developed a number of tests comparing people’s views on immigration and emigration and then identified the relevant survey data from 30 middle- and high-income countries (collected by Gallup and Transatlantic Trends). To gauge what respondents think about the issue in more detail and confirm that people are not just confusing emigration with immigration, I also conducted an original survey experiment and open-ended interviews from the UK — one of the few rich countries with considerable emigration flows and related public concerns.

As one of its main findings, my study documents high public opposition to both emigration and immigration across most surveyed countries in the existing public opinion surveys (Figure 1). Interestingly, as can be clearly seen from the figure, the opposition to emigration often exceeds the one to immigration. While somewhat surprising, I show that this is likely a result of the particular high-emigration context of the middle-income countries in my sample. Some emigrant-sending countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance, have virtually no immigration and the related opposition to it. In most other countries, however, migration flows go in both directions and few people are enthusiastic about either issue.

Even more intriguingly, I then show that people’s views on emigration and immigration attitudes are strongly and positively related to each other, which does not change even after accounting for respondents’ demographic characteristics (Figure 2). In other words, my analysis suggests those who dislike immigration and those who dislike emigration are largely the same people (and they are often in majority). The fact that many people feel similarly about immigration and emigration seems hard to explain by just appealing to conventional explanations such as related to material competition or outright prejudice. Indeed, why would all those anti-immigration voters who worry about their job market opportunities or those who simply dislike foreigners also oppose emigration of their own compatriots? One likely possibility is that people may oppose both emigration and immigration because they view them as social problems to be solved by the government.

Indeed, my own UK survey experiment corroborates this idea suggesting that British emigration attitudes are more motivated by people’s perceptions of what’s good for their country rather than just what’s good for them personally or prejudice. In particular, in line with a growing body of experimental research on immigration attitudes (Hainmueller & Hopkins, 2014), I show that people are much more opposed to high-skilled than low-skilled emigration (Figure 3), which is true regardless of respondents’ own skills or attitudes toward different racial groups.

My further analysis of qualitative interviews similarly suggests that most respondents prioritize national interest over personal concerns or ethnic animus when they try to explain their attitudes. For instance, the most common explanation for anti-emigration attitudes given by the respondents was related to the idea that “we [the British people] need them [the workers] here to help the economy or avoid brain drain.” However, these open-ended responses also reveal that many respondents simply think that both natives and foreigners alike have a moral obligation to stay where they are born regardless of any economic or social consequences. Interestingly, this universal moral responsibility to stay put, which is in principle violated by both emigrants and immigrants, has been rarely qualified by the respondents. Overall, it appears immigration and emigration views may also go together due to people’s deep moral intuitions about the wrongness of international migration to both receiving and sending societies irrespective of whether it helps or hurts anyone.

As of now, both politicians and social scientists view immigration and emigration as separate demographic processes and issues that are relevant in vastly different national contexts. However, this overlooks the fact that, as I demonstrate in my research, pluralities of voters across the world are against both types of international migration despite the important national differences. In other words, many people dislike human mobility between countries in general, not immigration or emigration in particular. While in line with some existing theories emphasizing the role of nationalism and national interest perceptions (Hainmueller & Hopkins, 2014), these results challenge the widespread idea that people oppose migration primarily due to personal material interests or prejudice against foreigners. Consistent with the political psychology research on the role of morality in politics (Haidt, 2007; Ryan, 2017), this new evidence further suggests that some people may simply view international human mobility of any form as morally wrong. Finally, the fact that most governments rarely restrict or even merely discourage emigration despite the strong will of their citizens presents a normative challenge. Most obviously, those who defend immigration restrictions by appealing to sovereignty and citing public opinion, should also be able to explain why it does not apply to emigration (also see Somin, 2020).

About the Author

Alexander Kustov is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. His research focuses on public and policy responses to diversity and migration in high-income democracies.

About the ISPP & its Blog

The International Society of Political Psychology is an interdisciplinary organization representing all fields of inquiry concerned with exploring the relationships between political and psychological processes. If you are interested in contributing an article or have any questions about the blog, please email them or visit the ISPP Blog’s webpage.


Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316(5827), 998–1002. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1137651

Hainmueller, J., & Hopkins, D. J. (2014). Public Attitudes Toward Immigration. Annual Review of Political Science, 17, 225–249. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-102512-194818

Kustov, A. (2020). “Bloom where you’re planted”: explaining public opposition to (e)migration. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2020.1754770

Ryan, T. J. (2017). No Compromise: Political Consequences of Moralized Attitudes. American Journal of Political Science, 00(0), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12248

Somin, I. (2020). Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. Oxford University Press.

Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2017). Self-Interest Is Often a Major Determinant of Issue Attitudes. Political Psychology, 38, 67–90. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12392

This is the official Medium account for the International Society of Political Psychology administered by the Early Career Committee. www.ispp.org/ecc/blog

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