These days it seems that hateful remarks spew from those who are disgruntled about their lives. Feeling the need to cast blame, these angry, discontented people attack any adversary without regard for civility. A recent backlash against any and everything deemed “politically correct” has emboldened a new wave of people to speak their minds and relish opportunities to belittle and to humiliate those who oppose their views.
Does a particular way of thinking encourage prejudice? New research found that the real stimulus for prejudice is something else. In a fairly recent article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel of Ghent University in Belgium looked at what psychological scientists have learned about prejudice since the 1954 publication of an influential book, The Nature of Prejudice by Gordon Allport.
Roets and Van Hiel found people who are prejudiced aren’t comfortable with ambiguity and feel a much stronger need to make quick and firm judgments and decisions in order to reduce ambiguity. These conclusions suggest that the fundamental source of prejudice is not ideology, but rather a basic human need and way of thinking.
“Of course, everyone has to make decisions, but some people really hate uncertainty and therefore quickly rely on the most obvious information, often the first information they come across, to reduce it,” Roets says.
That’s also why these people favor authorities and social norms which make it easier to make decisions. Then, once they’ve made up their mind, they stick to it. Roets claims, “If you provide information that contradicts their decision, they just ignore it.”
Roets argues that this way of thinking is linked to people’s need to categorize the world, often unconsciously. “When we meet someone, we immediately see that person as being male or female, young or old, black or white, without really being aware of this categorization,” he says. “Social categories are useful to reduce complexity, but the problem is that we also assign some properties to these categories. This can lead to prejudice and stereotyping.”
People who need to make quick judgments will judge a new person based on what they already believe about their category. “The easiest and fastest way to judge is to say, for example, ok, this person is a black man. If you just use your ideas about what black men are generally like, that’s an easy way to have an opinion of that person,” Roets says. “You say, ‘he’s part of this group, so he’s probably like this.’”
(Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel. “Allport’s Prejudiced Personality Today.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20. The Association for Psychological Science. December 2011.)
Princeton University's Susan Fiske, PhD, indicates that emotions such as pity, envy, disgust and pride appear tied not only to people's prejudicial ideas about social, cultural and religious "outgroups" they don't belong to but also to discriminatory behavior.
"It's not illegal to have a bad thought or feeling in your head," said Fiske. "What really matters is the behavior."
And the types discriminatory behavior prejudice can spur include excluding and harming others, Fiske said.
For example, people rate groups such as homeless people, drug addicts and poor people low on both warmth and competence, prompting them to feel disgust. In contrast, they rate elderly people, along with the disabled and developmentally challenged, high on warmth but low on competence, prompting them to feel pity.
People tend to rate middle-class people, whites and Americans high on both warmth and competence, prompting them to feel "pride," or what Fiske calls feelings of "ingroup" or "reference group" warmth and affiliation. And, finally, people tend to rate those who are rich, Jewish or Asian low on warmth and high on competence, prompting them to feel envy.
They found that those in the disgust category prompted feelings of both active and passive "harm," while pride-inducing groups receive both "cooperate" and "protect," but no feelings of harm. The pity groups get "helped and protected," but also socially excluded and neglected, Fiske noted, while the envy groups prompt a disturbing mix of "harm" and "affiliation."
"They get cooperated with and associated with, because they are high status and they have resources that other people have to have," she explained. "But when the chips are down, they get attacked."
"I personally think that this is a model of genocide," she added. "Many of the groups who have been subject to mass killings or genocide are groups who were once seen as entrepreneurs but perceived as outsiders."
(Susan Fiske, Amy Cuddy and Peter Glick. “A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 82, No. 6. June 2002.)
Researchers have also found that while when it comes to categorizing information about people, humans tend to minimize the differences between people within groups and exaggerate the differences between groups.
(Linville, Salovey, & Fischer, 1986; Ostrom & Sedikides, 1992; Meissner & Brigham, 2001.)
Some of the most well-known types of prejudice include:
- Religious prejudice
Is is human nature to feel uncomfortable with ambiguity. Uncertainty causes doubt and even fear when people are faced with more than one view of a situation. Some ambiguity is simply due to insufficient language skills. Consider the two meanings in the classic ambiguous sentence “I rode a black horse in red pajamas.” Yet, in many cases, ambiguity occurs when people simply misinterpret or misunderstand something because of sufficient knowledge. This may be when they slip into prejudiced behaviors.
The need to make quick judgments is evident in everyday life. Yet, people may use prejudice as a coping mechanism to make decisions when they refuse to consider anything in opposition to their past beliefs. In this manner, they quickly join a bandwagon and blame a convenient “outgroup” for their own feelings of confusion. They do so knowing they will receive support from those who traditionally blame these people – scapegoats like homosexuals or minorities.
To me, the most disturbing new prejudice now is politically motivated. John Chamber of the University of Florida found both liberals and conservatives were both prejudiced against groups with opposing values. Even though this prejudice stems from political ideals, it most definitely negatively affect specific outgroups. One cannot help but wonder if prejudice in the name of politics is not a smokescreen hiding deeper, ill-intentioned goals.
For example, conservatives expressed more prejudice than liberals against groups that were identified as liberal (e.g., African-Americans, homosexuals), but less prejudice against groups identified as conservative (e.g., Christian fundamentalists, business people).
In Chambers' second and third studies, participants were presented with 6 divisive political issues and descriptions of racially diverse target persons for each issue. Neither liberals’ nor conservatives’ impressions of the target persons were affected by the race of the target, but both were strongly influenced by the target’s political attitudes.
From these findings the researcher concluded that prejudices commonly linked with ideology are most likely derived from perceived ideological differences and not from other characteristics like racial tolerance or intolerance. Yet, I think prejudice involving an ideology is born of ambiguity and results in the same dangerous rush to judgment by people who perpetuate stubborn ignorance.
(John Chambers.“Ideology and Prejudice: The Role of Value Conflicts.” Forthcoming in Psychological Science.)
The abstract value of fairness is an essential part of the American character, and yet bias and discrimination are still very much a part of everyday life in the United States. Abstract thinking is the most complex stage in the development of cognitive thinking. It is characterized by adaptability, flexibility, and the use of concepts and generalizations.
Abstract thinking involves problem solving. Problem solving is accomplished by drawing logical conclusions from a set of observations, for example, making hypotheses and testing them. This type of thinking is developed by 12 to 15 years of age, usually after some degree of education. It has a tendency to allow people to think “outside of the box.”
Jamie Luguri and her colleagues investigated whether encouraging people to use an abstract thinking approach would reduce prejudice toward three groups that are often perceived as outside the norm: homosexuals, atheists, and Muslims.
In three different studies, volunteers were primed to think in either an abstract or concrete manner and were then asked to rate their feelings toward different groups of people. While liberal participants reported positive feelings toward non-normative groups regardless of their mode of thinking, the abstract/concrete distinction made a difference for conservative participants: conservatives were significantly more positive toward non-normative groups when they were primed to think abstractly.
These findings suggest that encouraging an abstract mindset could be a useful intervention – albeit a temporary one – for improving attitudes toward highly stigmatized groups.
(Jamie B. Luguri. “Reconstruing Intolerance: Abstract Thinking Reduces Conservatives' Prejudice Against Nonnormative Groups.” Psychological Science. July 2012)
No one wants to admit their prejudiced beliefs and behaviors because they can easily find subjective reasons for supporting their positions of dislike for someone or something. It is common for people to fear change and to dislike that which is foreign to their experience and to their upbringing. Yet, prejudice as a way of thinking demeans both the purveyors of these unfair judgments and the subjects of their attack. When people affirm their own prejudice, they purposely hurt themselves and others.
“Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.”
--Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre