Research Economics

Information Makes Us Inclusive. But not if We Are Populist

, by Fabio Todesco
An experiment conducted by Boeri and Morelli shows that providing simple information succeeds in increasing public knowledge about demographic trends and the pension system, but attitudes toward migrants improve only among non populist voters

Most immigrants enter Italy (and Spain) legally, and the level of taxes and contributions they pay is higher than the benefits they receive. Their presence is, moreover, essential to offset population decline and ensure the functioning of a pay-as-you-go pension system like Italy's, in which the tax contributions paid by workers are used to pay today's pensions. Yet, in Italy as in other countries in Europe, hostility toward immigrants is widespread and the fortunes of anti-immigration platforms growing.

An experiment conducted by Tito Boeri and Massimo Morelli of Bocconi's Department of Economics with Matteo Gamalerio (Institut d'Economia de Barcelona, University of Barcelona) and Margherita Negri (University of St. Andrews) shows that ignorance of demographic trends and the mechanisms that govern a pay-as-you-go pension system may be at the root of this hostility. Some citizens do not realize that as the population ages, the pension system is destined for a deep crisis without an influx of immigrant workers.

Providing simple information serves to improve awareness of the two issues and reduces, if only marginally, hostility toward immigrants. The limited effect can be attributed to mental barriers, likely due to citizens' growing distrust in the ability of the political class to solve any problem.

The authors involved 2,053 Italians and 1,454 Spaniards between the ages of 40 and 85 in an experiment. A survey measured their knowledge of demographic trends and the functioning of the pension system and collected data on their political preferences. While demographic trends turned out to be fairly well known (72% of respondents correctly claimed that the number of retirees is likely to increase more than the number of workers), knowledge of the pension system turned out to be poor (only 43% knew that contributions from today's workers are used to pay benefits to today's retirees).

Half of the sample was then offered a short informational video, focusing on demographic trends and the pension system but, crucially, not on the role of migrants. "By not mentioning migrants in the video, we wanted to avoid, on the one hand, the rejection reaction of those who might have interpreted it as politically aligned and, on the other hand, the effect of adjustment to the experimenter's perceived expectations, which sometimes occurs in such surveys," Professor Boeri explains. "We wanted to see if the audience was able to connect the dots and conclude that migrant input is needed."

The information proved effective. Watching the video increased the probability of correctly answering the question about how the pension system works by 6 percentage points and the question about demographic trends by 4.6 percentage points. The probability of answering both correctly increased by 10 percentage points. All these effects were stronger than average for voters of populist and anti-immigration parties.

Both groups were then asked four questions to measure attitudes toward migrants: whether more of them should be accepted and whether migrants could have positive effects on the country's pension system, economy and culture. The effect of the information was limited to the willingness to accept more migrants (2.6% higher among those who watched the video), while there were no significant differences in the responses to the other three questions. Moreover, the willingness to welcome more migrants grew almost exclusively among voters of non-populist and non-anti-immigration parties. "We can hypothesize that, in their case, it was precisely the acquisition of new information that made the difference," Prof. Boeri clarifies.

The effect of new information on the attitudes of voters of populist and overtly anti-immigration parties, on the other hand, was almost nil.

The authors identify a crisis of trust in elites and the political class as the likely cause of this lack of effect. "Individuals do not believe that politicians are capable of designing and implementing the most appropriate policies and prefer to reward those who make simple and radical promises," Professor Morelli says. "Any message aimed at increasing awareness of a potential benefit from immigration goes awry because populist voters believe that the potential benefit may not materialize, given their distrust in elites and policies proposed by mainstream parties. Moreover, these voters subscribe to the very parties that make commitments to anti-immigration policies, unconditional of any information they may receive."

Tito Boeri, Matteo Gamalerio, Massimo Morelli, Margherita Negri. "Pay-as-they-get-in: Attitudes towards Migrants and Pension Systems." Mimeo.