Xenophobia: Definition, Symptoms, Traits, Causes, Treatment

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.

What is Xenophobia?

Xenophobia is a general term that can be applied to any fear of someone 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 xenophobic may feel uncomfortable being in the presence of people from a different group, refuse to be friends or associate with these individuals, may not take outgroup individuals seriously, or may believe their ingroup is superior to the outgroup.

While 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 over 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 it a Mental Disorder?

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

Some researchers have debated 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 not viewing extreme xenophobia as pathological can normalize and legitimize 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 behaviors.

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

While xenophobia contains the word ‘phobia,’ 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.

While 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 while 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.

While 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.


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.

Culturally xenophobic people 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

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

This may involve rejecting people who have different religions or nationalities and avoiding people who have different skin colors 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 the genetic behavioral heritage because fear 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 familiar.

Factors that affect xenophobic attitudes are mainly considered internal and external. Internal factors are genetics and personality traits, while 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.

While some people may be more predisposed to be xenophobic, a lot of the attitudes are a learned response. For instance, if people grow up with families who are xenophobic, they will likely 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 and 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 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 influence individuals’ 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 with intolerant views may find information that makes their views more extreme (Bursztyn et al., 2019).


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

Xenophobia has been linked to the following:

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

This could negatively affect their mental health, making them feel socially isolated or depressed.

They may also feel unsafe, dismissed, disconnected, and constantly feel 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 was 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 in 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 in xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants, with a 41% reported increase in racially aggravated offenses in June 2016 compared to June 2015 (Home Office, 2016).

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

Combating 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. If someone with these beliefs wants therapy, the therapists should provide a non-judgemental approach to help the individual.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) utilizes methods to challenge negative and unrealistic beliefs 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 recognize and want to change their xenophobic attitudes may benefit from broadening their experiences. They could travel to other parts of their country or another country where the culture and language are different to help them with their tolerance of people who they consider different from 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 one will be over time.

Individuals could also educate themselves in other ways, such as watching documentaries that 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.

Coping 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 counseling or group therapy to discuss how they are feeling and to find ways to manage their negative feelings.

Online communities and support groups are another way 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 behavior is problematic, and they may be less likely to repeat their behavior.

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 behavior if they notice it, such as speaking up for a child in their class who may become a target.

Finally, other ways to tackle xenophobia are to report incidents if safe to do so, both in public and online, share stories about xenophobic experiences to increase awareness, call out news outlets if they are using xenophobic language, and support human rights organizations.


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.

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.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Olivia Guy-Evans

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.