Attitudes towards immigration can be affected by shocks to society that do not directly affect the economy, suggesting that cultural prejudice and intolerance have deeper roots. That is the central finding of a study by Simone Schüller, which explores the effects of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US on social attitudes in Germany.

The research, presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2013 annual conference, analyses survey data from Germany that records changes in people’s attitudes toward immigration and xenophobic hostility. Comparing survey respondents who were interviewed before and after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the study documents a clear increase in anti-immigration views.

To show that the shift is related to concerns other than security or competition for jobs, the author shows that people’s fear of job loss and concerns about crime and general economic development did not increase along with concerns about immigration in the aftermath of 9/11.

The research also shows that responses to the 9/11 attacks were not the same across society. Negative attitudes toward immigration were mainly prevalent among people with below-average levels of education, while no significant attitude shift was found among the highly educated.

More generally, the results confirm previous economic research claiming that anti-immigration views are not exclusively based on economic rationale and that ‘non-economic’ factors such as racial or cultural concerns are important. The author notes:

‘Policy measures directed towards encouraging immigration and immigrant integration should take account of the fact that public opinion on migration can be affected by non-economic shocks, major media events or manipulative campaigns, even in absence of economic threat.’


Anti-immigrant attitudes potentially shape immigration policies, may result in economic inefficiencies via labour market discrimination, represent a barrier to successful immigrant integration and pose a threat to social cohesion. Therefore, it is important for policy-makers to understand what lies at the heart of anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiments.

While economists commonly suggest that negative public opinion can be mainly explained by economic rationales due to labour market competition between native and immigrant workers, recent research emphasises the role of cultural norms and beliefs. This study by Simone Schüller adds to this literature by using the 9/11 terror attacks as a quasi-experiment.

The events of 9/11 constitute an interesting experiment to investigate the relevance of ‘non-economic’ factors, since the shock to attitudes was unanticipated and of purely ‘non-economic’ nature. This setting allows for the rare opportunity to examine attitudinal changes for the same individuals over time. The results of this study support the view that individuals became on average less tolerant in response to the 9/11 shock.

Looking at heterogeneous responses across the population, the findings indicate a potentially moderating role of education with respect to people’s immigration attitudes. This is in line with the very consistent finding in economic research that more highly educated people generally hold more favourable attitudes toward immigration.

The study by Schüller shows that the immigration attitudes of the highly educated also seem to be more stable and less affected by shocks like the 9/11 attacks. But this is not the case with respect to attitudes toward xenophobic hostility, where no mitigating effects of education are found.

Therefore, whether or not education per se has a liberating effect on individuals, resulting in less ethnic prejudice and a greater appreciation of cultural diversity, remains an open question subject to future research.


Notes for editors:

‘The Effects of 9/11 on Attitudes Toward Immigration and the Moderating Role of Education’ by Simone Schüller

Simone Schüller is a Resident Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany.


Simone Schüller on +493-151-512-424-68 (schueller@iza.org; http://www.iza.org)

RES media consultant Romesh Vaitilingam:
+44 (0) 7768 661095

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