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What Is Xenophobia?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published April 06, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD

What is xenophobia?

Xenophobia originates from the Greek word ‘xenos’, which means ‘foreign’ in the most standard definition, although it can also be interpreted as ‘guest’ depending on the context. It also originates from the word ‘phobos’, meaning phobia.

Xenophobia is a general term which can be applied to any fear of someone who is different from the individual. Xenophobia can often intersect with a person’s race, ethnicity, nationality and any aspects that may be used to distinguish people as ‘others.

Often, there are overlaps between xenophobia and forms of prejudice including racism and homophobia. Although these types of prejudice are based on specific characteristics someone has, xenophobia is different in the sense that it is the perception that members of the outgroup are foreign to the ingroup.

This can typically stem from the deep-rooted belief that there is a conflict between the individual’s ingroup and the outgroups. 

Someone who is xenophobic may feel uncomfortable being in the presence of people from a different group, refuse to be friends or associates with these individuals, may not take outgroup individuals seriously, or may believe their own ingroup is superior to the outgroup.

Whilst racism is the belief that one race is superior to another, xenophobia is the hatred of outsiders based on fear, which could then result in feelings of superiority to those outsiders. 

Xenophobia is an issue as this type of thinking separates people into insiders and outsiders, which can ultimately cause attitudes such as fear, hate, and humiliation.

Xenophobia could also result in people feeling excluded from the culture they wish to live in or even violence in the most extreme cases. Xenophobia can therefore lead to negative experiences at the individual and the social level.

Is Xenophobia a Mental Disorder?

Xenophobia is not recognised as a mental health condition since there is no criteria for it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Some researchers have debated over whether xenophobia should be given its own criteria or made a sub-type of another condition. Poussaint (2002) suggested that extreme xenophobic attitudes should be considered a sub-type of delusional disorder.

The reasoning behind this is that extreme violence because of xenophobia should be indicative of a mental health condition and to not view extreme xenophobia as pathological can normalise and legitimise these views.

The researcher therefore proposes there be a ‘Prejudice type’ under the criteria of delusional disorder which can account for extreme xenophobic attitudes and behaviours. 

To contrast, others have maintained that extreme xenophobia should not be labelled as a mental health condition as they argue it is a social problem rather than a health issue (Bell, 2004).

Whilst xenophobia contains the word ‘phobia’, which is a diagnosable mental health condition, it is not suggested to be as extreme as other clinical phobias people may experience such as agoraphobia or claustrophobia.

Whilst it is possible to have a clinical fear of strangers, these individuals would fear all strangers, including those that would be of the same race, ethnicity, and culture as them. People with a fear of all strangers would experience anxious symptoms associated with phobias even whilst only thinking of strangers.

They would also try to avoid all strangers as much as possible, therefore the condition would be significantly detrimental to their lives. 

Whilst xenophobia is not a diagnosable mental health condition, it can become a symptom of other mental health conditions. For instance, extreme racist views which stem from xenophobia could be a symptom of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

Likewise, xenophobia could be because of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If someone develops PTSD after experiencing terrorism and violence in another country, they could then develop xenophobia attitudes because of that experience. 

Types/causes of xenophobia

There are two main types of xenophobia:

Cultural Xenophobia 

Individuals who have culturally xenophobic views may reject objects, traditions, or symbols which are associated with another group.

For instance, this could be clothing that is traditional of another culture, different languages, or traditional music of another culture.

People who are culturally xenophobic may believe their own cultures and traditions are superior to those belonging to other groups.

This type of xenophobia may present as people making negative remarks about culturally traditional clothing or making derogatory comments when people speak another language around them.

Immigrant Xenophobia 

Iindividuals who express immigrant xenophobia may reject people or groups of people who they believe does not fit in with their ingroup society.

This may involve rejecting people who have different religions or nationalities them and avoiding people who have different colour skin to them.

Individuals with this type of xenophobia may consider people in their own social or cultural group as being superior to others, avoid places heavily populated by immigrants, or make negative comments about people who belong to other cultures or countries. 

The cause of xenophobia can be complicated. Evolutionary psychologists may argue that xenophobia may be a part of genetic behavioural heritage in that being fearful of outside groups protected ancestral humans from threat.

Due to this, we may still have a predisposition to being wary of outgroups and may feel more inclined to spend our time with those who are like us. This has also been demonstrated in experiments using the ‘Strange Situation’.

In these classic studies, infants were shown to have anxiety (e.g., crying, not wanting to go near the stranger) when left in a room with a stranger compared to someone who is familiar to them. 

Factors which affect xenophobic attitudes are mainly considered as internal and external. Internal factors being genetics and personality traits, whilst environmental factors are within the range of intergroup relations and education.

A study by Kocaturk and Bozdag (2020) investigated the relationship between personality traits and xenophobic attitudes. They found that those that had high scores of ‘agreeableness’, which is associated with compassion and kindness, had lower levels of xenophobic attitudes.

In comparison, those who scored highly on narcissism and psychopathy were shown to be linked with higher levels of xenophobic attitudes. 

Whilst some people may be more predisposed to be xenophobic, a lot of the attitudes are a learnt response. For instance, if people grow up with families who are xenophobic, it is likely that they will pass on these beliefs to their children.

Similarly, if people are brought up in areas with little diversity or went to school with primarily people who were of the same culture, race, or spoke the same language as them, they may not be as knowledgeable of people outside of their own culture or nationality.

This lack of knowledge may also affect the tolerance someone may have of other people and there may be a stronger sense of ingroup and outgroup. 

Social media and news outlets could also fuel xenophobic attitudes such as politicians using political propaganda to weaponize xenophobia to manipulate emotional tensions within a community to further their own agenda. Social media can make it easier than ever to find like-minded individuals and communities who have the same xenophobic attitudes.

Also, social media could also influence individual’s opinions if something is presented to them in a way that can sway views.

Previously tolerant individuals might become exposed to intolerant views which can shift their opinions, in the same way that those who had intolerant views may find information that makes their views more extreme (Bursztyn et al., 2019). 

Impact of Xenophobia

Xenophobic attitudes can have a wider impact on societies, including cultural attitudes, economics, politics, and history. 

Xenophobia has been linked to:

  • War and genocide

  • Hostility towards ‘others’

  • Decreased social and economic growth for outgroups

  • Discrimination 

  • Hate crimes

  • The spread of false information about certain cultures

  • Isolation 

  • Controversial policies 

Those who are experiencing xenophobic attitudes towards them may find it difficult to live in their society. They may have less job opportunities, housing access and rights than others.

This could negatively affect their mental health, making them feel socially isolated or even depressed. They may also feel unsafe, dismissed, disconnected, and constantly feeling like they are being threatened.

A study on experiences of xenophobia among U.S Chinese older adults found that they had increased levels of depression, poorer health, an increased risk of isolation, and were more likely to have suicidal ideation (Dong, Chen, & Simon, 2014).

On the other hand, those who express xenophobic views may also face negative impacts. They could lose friends with people who do not share their views, or even lose their job in extreme cases, if their xenophobic actions are reported. This may also result in these individuals feeling socially isolated or depressed. 

Current issues could also strengthen xenophobic attitudes and cause negative impacts. For instance, the increase of immigration over the years on a global scale may have strengthened xenophobic attitudes (Yakushko, 2009).

The terrorist attack of 9/11 in New York was followed by anti-Muslim xenophobia. Likewise, the European Union referendum in Britain in 2016 also saw a significant increase of xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants, with a 41% reported increase in racially aggravated offences in June 2016 compared to June 2015 (Home Office, 2016).

More recently, the outbreak of COVID-19 has sparked an increase in xenophobic attitudes towards Asian communities, with more than 1700 anti-Asian hate incidents documents across the United States between March and May 2020 (Le, Cha, Han, & Tseng, 2020). 

How to Combat Xenophobia

For those who have xenophobic attitudes, it may be beneficial to undergo a type of therapy that would alter the incorrect and harmful perceptions they have of others.

A lot of xenophobia could have stemmed from deep-rooted core beliefs that may be difficult to change on their own. If someone with these beliefs wants to try therapy, the therapists should provide a non-judgemental approach to help the individual.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) utilises methods to challenge negative and unrealistic beliefs, with the aim to change these to more realistic beliefs.

This could also work if the person with xenophobia experiences anxiety or irrational fear of other people. Also, anger management could be an option for those who are more prone to violent or threatening outbursts at those who are not a part of their ingroup.

Through anger management, individuals can learn skills to manage their negative emotions like fear and anxiety to overcome this.  

Otherwise, those who recognise and want to change their xenophobic attitudes may benefit from broadening their experiences. They could travel to other parts of their country or to another country where the culture and language are different to help them with their tolerance of people who they consider different to them.

This could relate to exposure therapy, a common practice used with people who have phobias, with the idea that the more exposure one has to something fearful, the less fearful this will be over time. 

Individuals could also educate themselves in other ways such as watching documentaries which discuss other cultures, reading informative books, attending talks, or joining social groups for those wanting to learn more about different cultures, ethnicities, languages etc.

Additionally, when talking to individuals that would have been considered part of the ‘outgroup’, it may be useful to search for similarities with that person, such as shared interests.

This could increase how much they relate to others as they may notice that there are a lot more similarities between people than they originally thought.

They could also try to learn something from people they encounter such as understanding situations from another’s perspective.

The less unknown people become, the less likely the individual will feel uncomfortable around them.  

How to Cope With Xenophobia

If someone has experienced xenophobic comments directed towards them and this is affecting their mental health, they may also consider therapy depending on how severely affected they feel.

If individuals are experiencing depression or anxiety because of xenophobia, they could be prescribed anti-depressants to help combat some of the symptoms.

They may also consider counselling or group therapy to discuss how they are feeling and to find ways to manage their negative feelings.

Online communities and support groups is another way in which to find like-minded individuals who may have had similar experiences. These groups can provide a safe space to be heard and reminded that they are not alone. 

For anyone who is noticing xenophobia in society, it may be useful to call out xenophobic comments or intervene if safe to do so. This can inform the person who is being xenophobic that their behaviour is problematic, and they may be less likely to repeat their behaviours. 

Since xenophobic attitudes can begin in childhood, it may be beneficial to educate children at a young age to help prevent deep-rooted xenophobia from taking form.

Speaking honestly with children about xenophobia could help them learn to challenge this behaviour if they notice it, such as speaking up for a child in their class who may become targets.

Finally, other ways to tackle xenophobia is to report incidents if safe to do so, both in public and online, sharing stories about xenophobic experiences to increase awareness, calling out news outlets if they are using xenophobic language, and supporting human rights organisations.

Fact Checking
Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, April 06). What Is Xenophobia?. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/xenophobia-fear-of-strangers.html

Sources

Bell, C. (2004). Racism: A mental illness?. Psychiatric Services, 55(12), 1343-1343.

Bursztyn, L., Egorov, G., Enikolopov, R., & Petrova, M. (2019). Social media and xenophobia: evidence from Russia (No. w26567). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Corcoran, H., Lader, D., & Smith, K. (2016). Hate Crime, England and Wales. Statistical bulletin, 5, 15.

Dong, X., Chen, R., & Simon, M. A. (2014). Experience of discrimination among US Chinese older adults. Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biomedical Sciences and Medical Sciences, 69(Suppl_2), S76-S81.

Fritscher, L. (2021, January 7). What Is Xenophobia? Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/xenophobia-fear-of-strangers-2671881#impact-of-xenophobia

Kocaturk, M., & Bozdag, F. (2020). Xenophobia among University Students: Its Relationship with Five Factor Model and Dark Triad Personality Traits. International Journal of Educational Methodology, 6(3), 545-554.

Le, T. K., Cha, L., Han, H. R., & Tseng, W. (2020). Anti-Asian xenophobia and Asian American COVID-19 disparities.

Poussaint, A. F. (2002). Yes: it can be a delusional symptom of psychotic disorders. The Western journal of medicine, 176(1), 4-4.

Raypole, C., (2021, July 26). Unpacking Xenophobia, or the Fear of Outsiders. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/xenophobia#xenophobia-vs-racism

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