What do we know about the subjective and intangible factors that shape migration decision-making?

This working paper was originally published via PRIO.

Research on migrant decision-making has long been dominated by economic models, viewing (non)migrants as rational actors who weigh up the socio-economic costs and benefits of moving versus staying (see Hagen-Zanker, 2008 for a review of this body of literature). Other, growing, areas in the literature have focused on understanding life and migration aspirations that underlie migrant decision-making (Aslany, et al., 2021; Carling, 2014; de Haas, 2010); meso-level factors, including the role of social networks, social and cultural contexts and the migration infrastructure (Goss and Lindquist, 1995; Jones and Sha, 2020; Massey, 1990); and the migration and nonmigration policy landscape in host and origin countries, including education, social protection and labour market programmes (Fratzke and Salant, 2018; Hagen-Zanker and Himmelstine, 2013; OECD, 2017; Hagen-Zanker and Mallett, 2020). The literature also no longer sees migrant decision-making as a one-time decision of whether (or not) to migrate, but increasingly pays attention to considerations of migration mode, journeys and destinations (Crawley and Hagen-Zanker, 2019; Crawley and Jones, 2020; Gladkova and Mazzucato, 2017; Hagen-Zanker and Mallett, 2016).

Related to the literature on migrant decision-making, research on ‘migrant selectivity’ – what is different about the people that choose to leave, compared to those who stay – remains a thriving research area. This literature looks at why some people choose to move, whilst others choose to stay put, focusing on factors such as differences in education and skill levels (e.g. Chiquiar and Hanson, 2005), health (e.g. Domnich et al., 2012) and wealth (e.g. Bylander, 2017). However, migrants may differ from non-migrants in more unobservable characteristics too. Some scholars argue that migrants are the most ambitious, risk-taking and motivated people (Polavieja et al., 2018). These characteristics are considered unobservable or intangible in that they cannot be systematically measured or observed by others. This area of research dives down to the most micro of levels, to inside a person’s mind and the ways in which they see the world and their place within it. It considers the interaction of personality and non-cognitive skills, which, broadly defined, are ‘patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviour’ (Borghans et al., 2008) which shape and inform migrant decision-making. These myriad subjective and intangible factors include psychological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural factors, as well as individuals’ personal and normative belief and value systems. By studying these, we can shed further light on migrant decision-making.

This literature review synthesises the literature on these subjective and intangible factors in low and middle income countries, drawing on 182 studies from the academic and grey literature. It draws out key findings in four areas, i) imagination, ii) personality traits and attitudes to risk, iii) emotions and feelings, and iv) beliefs and values, and also highlights key gaps in the evidence base.