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Researchers put two Spanish-speakers on a train and changed commuters’ views of immigration

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Robert Sapolsky at the Wall Street Journal points this week to a fascinating experiment from Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos looking at how attitudes among a population of mostly suburban whites outside Boston changed when they came into contact with Spanish-speaking fellow commuters.

In the study, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Enos managed to design the kind of randomized control trial that normally evades researchers looking into this question: "What does diversity do to our attitudes?" he asks. How does exposure to others change the way we think about them? Does contact between groups lead to conflict? Or does exposure make us more likely to empathize?

"This is a debate," Enos says, "that people been having for approaching 100 years."

It's really hard, though, to create experimental diversity and then watch how people react to it. Scientists, for example, can't (and wouldn't want to) move immigrant families into empty houses in a predominantly white neighborhood and then observe what happens next. So Enos tried to get as close to a similar scenario as possible.

He asked people waiting to board the commuter rail in some upper-income, mostly white neighborhoods outside Boston to fill out a survey about their political views, demographics and commuting habits. These are people who generally take the same train to work every morning (a commuter rail is notably different from the subway in this sense). Then, in the following week, Enos introduced the experiment: He hired pairs of Spanish-speaking people — all Mexican nationals living in the United States on visas — to show up on the platforms and make the same commute, two on each train, every day for two weeks.

The native Spanish-speakers hadn't exactly moved into the neighborhood — although, by their simulated commuting habits in the morning, it appeared as if they had. Enos then asked the original commuters to fill out another survey, including the identical questions they had been asked before about their views on immigration.

After Enos added just two Spanish-speakers to the environment of their regular train ride, commuters in the treatment group became much more likely to say that the United States should reduce the number of immigrants from Mexico permitted in the country. And they became much less likely to say we should allow illegal immigrants already here — those with jobs and no criminal records — to stay.

At first blush, this finding seems to undermine the idea we often have about big cities that the diversity around us makes us more tolerant. Here is Sapolsky's reaction:

The study's finding is really remarkable. These white suburbanites did not become more exclusionary as a result of reading a report on the economic impact of immigration or after attending a fiery debate among experts on the subject. The experiment simply made a modest change to their social environment, providing a powerful demonstration of the unconscious power of the psychology of Us-versus-Them and of perceived threats from other groups. Frankly, this result is pretty depressing.

But here's another interesting result: Enos' study gave some commuters the follow-up survey just three days into the experiment, and others 10 days into it. The immigration views of the first group changed much more dramatically. The effect — though still present — was muted for those people who'd spent the full two weeks riding alongside their new fellow commuters.

"By putting a crack in this dam of segregation, people have this really strong reaction against them," Enos says. But over a little time, it's as if commuter attitudes softened after they may have had a chance to interact with the new arrivals. "And we could actually see this," Enos says. The Spanish speakers (who had no idea what the study was about) reported smiles exchanged and small talk with other commuters as the experiment drew to a close.

Over a longer period of time, Enos suggests, perhaps we'd expect the immigration attitudes of the commuters to return to what they had been originally — or even to grow more supportive. From this limited experiment, though, it's hard to know what would happen if the two Spanish-speaking faces become 10, or 20.

A commuter train platform was a smart logistical setting for this experiment for a lot of reasons. But the study also raises some interesting questions about the role of public spaces — transit stops, parks, libraries — in enabling us to encounter people unlike ourselves. Sure, a lot of cities are demographically diverse. But that doesn't mean that the people who live there regularly interact with one another. And this study suggests that contact alone is not all that matters; it's the connections that form through regular contact that might make us more supportive of or invested in other groups.

Consider the alternative to this Boston setting: a city with no commuter rail, or without much public transit at all. There, people traveling everywhere by private car would have even less reason to encounter people different from their existing neighbors, co-workers or friends. Perhaps they wouldn't experience the immediate negative reaction from such contact. But they wouldn't have the chance over time to form those connections, either.