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Two studies were carried out in England to investigate the role of essentialist national group definitions in determining the effect of national identification on prejudice towards immigrants, and asylum seekers in particular. It was expected that the relationship between national identification and prejudice would depend on the degree to which participants endorse an essentialist (‘ethnic’) definition of their nationality. Consistent with this, Study 1 (N=154) found that national identification is associated with negativity towards asylum seekers only among individuals who endorse an essentialist conception of the group, and shows no significant association with prejudice among those who reject such a conception. Study 2 (N=219) used a longitudinal design conducted over 6 weeks, allowing cross-lagged analysis of causality between essentialism, identification, and behavioural intentions towards asylum seekers. A causal effect of essentialism on willingness to support a group acting against asylum seekers was observed, with no significant causal effect in the reverse direction. The reverse causal direction was observed in the case of support for a group seeking to support asylum seekers, with intended behaviours determining essentialism. The results are discussed in terms of the importance of group definitions in the study of in-group affiliations and prejudice.