Skip to comments.Hard-Wired for Prejudice? Experts Examine Human Response to Outsiders
Posted on 04/20/2004 4:39:28 AM PDT by Pharmboy
It's only a short step from feeling angry to feeling angry at someone, especially if that person is of a different social group, sex or ethnicity.
At least that is what psychologists who are investigating the link between emotions and prejudice are finding.
In a study that measured how emotional states affected views of outsiders, the researchers, from Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found that anger increased the likelihood of a negative reaction to members of a different group and that sadness or a neutral emotion did not.
The study will appear in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science.
Taken together with other research, the findings suggest that prejudice may have evolutionary roots, having developed as a quick, crude way for early humans to protect themselves from danger.
"The anger is serving as a signal that there's some level of threat or hostility in the environment," said Dr. David DeSteno, an assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University and an author of the study. "And if there's a threat in your environment, it's more likely to come from someone not in your social group than someone who is, because usually social group members reinforce each other. They protect each other from outsiders."
The new research on emotions and prejudice has been partly inspired by changing ideas about the nature of emotion itself. Social scientists once dismissed emotions as an illogical nuisance. But by the 1980's, researchers had begun to consider emotions useful in their own right.
"Emotions and the response tendencies that go with them help guide our reactions to the world," Dr. Galen V. Bodenhausen, director of the social psychology program at Northwestern University, said. "Rational thought is great in a lot of circumstances where you have time and latitude to do it. But emotions provide rapid, immediate guidance, a gut reaction."
Robert Spencer for The New York Times
Dr. David DeSteno and Dr.
Nilanjana Dasgupta observe a
student, Angela Naniot,
demonstrate an experiment in
Amherst, Mass., on reactions to
different social groups
In 1994, Dr. Bodenhausen conducted one of the first studies to show that moods could affect whether people invoked hurtful stereotypes. In it, the researchers gave 135 undergraduate psychology students a writing exercise that left them feeling sad, angry or neutral. Next, they had the students read fictional case histories and rate the likelihood that the people described in the stories were guilty of misconduct.
Some participants read about "Juan García," a student who had supposedly assaulted a classmate. Others read the same case, with the name changed to "John Garner."
Some students read about a student accused of cheating, while others read the same case history, with the student identified as a college athlete.
Angry students, the researchers found, were more likely to find Juan García guilty of assault than John Garner. They were also more likely to think that the athlete had cheated. The students who were neither angry nor sad tended not to rely on stereotypes in their judgments.
Students who felt sad were, if anything, biased in favor of the people linked with negative stereotypes.
"Angry situations often require rapid response," Dr. Bodenhausen said of the results. "It's not a good time to be pensive."
For better or worse, he noted, stereotyping, arising as it does from the mind's tendency to make sense out of the world by categorizing and simplifying, provides a basis for that rapid response.
Sadness, on the other hand, "isn't often associated with immediate threats," Dr. Bodenhausen said, but "with losses or other kinds of problems that being reflective and thoughtful might help you to solve."
Sad students, he said, may have been in a frame of mind that led them to evaluate the case histories more slowly and to reach more judicious conclusions.
In the new study, Dr. DeSteno and his colleagues tried to demonstrate that people are, at a very basic level, wired to distrust outsiders. In one part of the study, volunteers answered quiz questions like, "How many people ride the New York subway every day?" and were classified as overestimators or underestimators.
In fact, the quiz was a ruse, and the participants were randomly assigned to one group or the other. The researchers then induced angry, sad or neutral moods in the participants and had them take a computerized test.
In the test, positive words like love or negative words like death were flashed on a screen, followed by an image of someone identified as an underestimator or an overestimator. The subjects were asked to respond to each photograph by pressing a key labeled "us" or "them."
When the photos followed positive words, the researchers found, the angry subjects took significantly longer to identify members of the "them" group than they did when the photos followed negative words.
Response time on such tests is considered a good measure of automatic, unconscious thought patterns.
It may seem intuitively obvious that feeling angry can elicit hostility toward outsiders. But another study by Dr. Bodenhausen demonstrated that the responses of happy people were quite similar to those of angry people, that they were more likely to draw on negative stereotypes in judging guilt or innocence.
Dr. Bodenhausen speculated that this might be because the mind essentially strives to function as a fuel-efficient machine. "Happiness is associated with environments that are safe, where things are going well," he said. "When we feel happy, going with simple first reactions seems adequate for judging the world."
It also may ensure, he added, that "when the time comes to confront problems, we'll have the energy to do it."
In other instances, a biased reaction may provide a quick boost for the ego. In a study at the University of Michigan in 1997, the researchers looked at about 125 undergraduate pyschology students, with Jews and foreigners excluded, and found that those who had suffered blows to their self-esteem were more likely than those with high self-esteem to assign negative stereotypes to a woman in a video who wore a Star of David necklace and was identified as "Julie Goldberg."
The more negatively the subjects with low self-esteem rated Julie, the more their own self-esteem levels increased.
On the other hand, both groups of subjects gave positive evaluations to a woman identified as Maria D'Agostino who was wearing a cross.
"For most people, it is a constant task to try to feel good about themselves," said Dr. Steven Spencer, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and a co-author of the study. "It can take a lot of effort and work."
Thinking bad things about people in another group, Dr. Spencer said, makes people feel better about their own group, "which then makes them feel better about themselves."
Being more aware of the effects that emotions can have on attitudes, Dr. Bodenhausen said, can be helpful in daily life.
"People may be very reluctant to confront this about themselves, because it's so undesirable to be prejudiced," he said. "Confronting the possibility that these biases exist in us is a necessary part of the solution."
They had been in that province for 700 YEARS!...and are still called "Outsiders". Maybe they had an Affirmative Action program for them when they got there, and earned everybody's resentment for ever afterwards..who knows?
Gah! This question always drives me crazy! Because there are fewer individual differences in Chinese people!
They used to say that about black people...
Oh, for chrissakes, it's true of black people! This isn't bigotry, it's genetics.
Many of the genes that make up "blackness" or "orientalness" tend to be dominant. Many of the genes that make up "Europeanness" are recessive. This means that white people come in a bewildering variety: redheads, blondes, brunettes, curly haired, wavy haired, straight-haired, very tall, tall, average, short, very short, giant noses, tiny noses, blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, giant noses, tiny noses, white skinned, olive skinned. Basically, our genes are wussy. Anybody can push them over. That, and we outbreed a lot.
There's a good deal more variation in American blacks than African ones, because we've been trading genes for so long. How many of the above characteristics do you expect to find in African blacks? Han Chinese? And what the hell is wrong with saying it?
Terror of being called a racist has run through this country like a plague of stupid.
No, I believe that once "other" has been identified, more precise differentiation need not be accomplished.
No, I'm sorry. That's simply laughably untrue.
I'm sure the Chinese have no problems telling each other apart, and may have difficulty telling us apart. But there simply is not anywhere near the same amount of genetic variation in ethnic Chinese than there is in generic Northern Euopean mutt.
Puh-leeze. There was no doubt as much cross-shtupping in Asia as in Europe. Do you have one scintilla of evidence to support your contentions?
Brilliant point, and well stated.
What the hell are you talking about, evidence? When was the last time you saw a naturally blonde Korean? Or one with blue eyes, or curly hair?
It's a matter of having bred within a certain (very large - I'm not implying anything bad here) gene pool, until the dominant genes are so dominant that the recessive ones almost never show themselves.
Over the years I have tried to train myself to differentiate between various Asians and can now--in a reasonably reproducible manner--differentiate between Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese. While the differences among them may not be as clear as those between red and brown hair, they do exist.
The next time a guy decides to drag someone down the road behind his pickup, his attorney will be using this study as a defense. The Evolution Card.
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