Cognitive Migration

Cognitive Migration:The Role of Mental Simulation in the (Hot) Cultural Cognition of Migration Decisions (link to the article)
David Kyle & Saara Koikkalainen

This paper introduces the novel empirical concept of “cognitive migration” to better understand the role of the prospective imagination, or mental simulation, in the decision-making process before major mobility events to a new neighborhood, city, or country. First, relying on existing social science approaches, we describe the problem of how to understand the particularly risky decision to migrate abroad without authorization; Second, we review briefly some of the recent work in social cognitive and decision sciences that could potentially be brought to bear on our case, though undeveloped in the social science migration literature; Third, we describe cognitive migration, and, hence, cognitive migrants, as a concept that allows us to capture a significant, yet largely unidentified temporally-distinct part of migration decision-making amenable to a cultural or social cognitive approach (how our social world affects cognition and vice versa); Lastly, we offer initial support for this empirical concept from recent cognitive and neuro-scientific research on emotions and develop some hypotheses regarding the determinants and effects of cognitive migration–as opposed to the physical migration event itself. We argue that family, friends, recruiters, and smugglers may provoke a less rational (cost-benefit) mode of reasoning and, instead, elicit cognitive migration as we negotiate an imagined social future that feels right.





  • comment-avatar
    Hugo Mercier 11 April 2011 (17:02)

    Thanks for this fascinating paper! A couple of questions, one on happiness and one on the role of advice: Would you be tempted to use the research on happiness to argue that from this point of view, the migration decision may be misguided, for the two following reasons: 1) We vastly overestimate the impact of major life changes on happiness (which is small after 3 month for just about everything) (although I don’t know of any research about migration in particular) 2) Happiness is partly determined by one’s relative social standing, so that moving from a position not at the bottom (as you described most migrants) to one all too often at the bottom may actually hurt happiness, at least for a few years (if not a generation, or more) Some research has shown that people tend to make better decisions following advice, yet are often reluctant to use it. Do you think that may be true of potential migrants? Do they usually have access to advice from people who have already made the journey? A couple of references: Hsee and Hastie 2006 Decision and experience why don’t we choose what makes us happy Gilbert et al 2009 The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice

  • comment-avatar
    Saara Koikkalainen 12 April 2011 (21:23)

    Thanks for the comment and references! We have looked at some research on happiness (for example Richard Layard: Happiness, lessons from a new science)but had not come accross those. I would think happiness research is highly relevant to our topic, as I guess making a decision to migrate is related to trying to maximise one’s future happiness — whether this desire is realised is of course another matter. And on the other hand taking the advice of others can be understood to fall within the migration networks -idea: you may decide to move because others have made the same choice, or then again you you may decide to move against the advice of those who left before you. The social context plays a role in how much value is placed on the advice (and they may not know what the best advice would be either). But David will also write comments to your questions, these are just my preliminary thoughts on the issues you raised.

  • comment-avatar
    David Kyle 13 April 2011 (19:19)

    Thank you, Hugo, for the insightful comments. The agenda of “positive psychology” (happiness research) shaped in part the notion of “cognitive migration” as I’ve been tracking it for several years. How well we predict future emotional states can be turned on its head: How does the fact that we attempt to forecast happiness at all affect our current decisions? This is not a reasoning process for the most part, as you point out in your research, Hugo. Cognitive migration in large part attempts to describe how we do that–through an episodic, prospective imagination. While we touch on it in this paper, we’ve only begun to consider all of the relevant ways that the happiness research of Gilbert and others could inform a research agenda on cognitive migration–there are many! The role of advice, as Saara pointed out, is highly relevant as the role of social networks has been a prominent feature of migration theorizing for several decades. One poorly understood dimension is simply the cultural or social cognition of advice, which can now be informed by other research you cite. Though it is premature to fully describe it in this paper, Saara and I have conducted experiments with approx. 160 college students randomly placed into two groups. Both groups are given a description of illegal migration from one horrible region to another nearly equally unappealing destination (in reality, Myanmar to Malaysia). Both narratives contain the same information, but one group gets the first-person account as if they are the migrant, while the other gets the third-person account. The first group is asked whether they themselves would migrate; the second group is asked whether they would recommend that the the person described should migrate. There was a significant propensity for those with the first-person (thus, inducing empathetic cognitive migration imagining themselves in the situation) to opt for migration than the second group recommending others. This gets at the other side of your comments about advice in that the development of it for others also involves a prospective imagination, though we clearly, and typically, give others advice that we ourselves may not follow. We look forward to writing this up soon.