The emotional basis of prejudice

Kristen Lindquist

Across the US and the globe, there has recently been an uptick in prejudice. Prejudice is defined as a hostile or negative attitude towards others on the basis of their group affiliation, whether that group is based on race, religion, sex, political ideology, country of origin, mental abilities, or any category. People can be prejudiced towards anyone on the basis of almost anything, and history is rife with examples. Sadly, perhaps one of the most enduring features of human behavior is that people find reasons to like people who are like them, and dislike people who are not.

Decades of research show that prejudice is a deeply emotional phenomenon. Anyone who is being honest can admit to at circle-312343_960_720least occasionally feeling hatred towards their political enemies, fearful towards people who look and sound different from them, or disdainful of people who hold different religious views. Our emotions are powerful determinants of behaviors, so it sometimes seems that once these feelings are set in motion, there is no allaying prejudiced behavior. Yet research that my collaborators and I recently published in the journal Emotion demonstrates that not all emotions are equal when it comes to prejudice.

We’ve long known that even if people don’t want to feel negative towards people who are different from them, they automatically do so. This negativity can stem from any number of factors, including the fact that our society associates negative things with a certain group of people, that you’ve had a negative experience with a single individual from a group and now you generalize to that whole group, or even the fact that you just feel a little uncomfortable interacting with people who are different from you. Even well-meaning people sometimes feel uncomfortable with people who are from another race, demographic, or religion because they don’t know how to act or are afraid that they’ll say the wrong thing. These feelings typically arise as a gut reaction when you interact with a person from another group, but our research shows that precisely how you interpret that gut reaction makes all the difference for whether you feel prejudice or not towards that person.

In our research, we studied prejudice towards Black Americans amongst White American participants. We chose to study these groups given the historical prevalence of prejudice towards Black Americans in the US, but in principle, we could have studied any number of groups across time and space, and the results would be similar. In our studies, we first measured White participants’ gut reactions towards pictures of Black male faces. We did so using a procedure called the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP) that allows us to assess to what extent people have negative gut reactions towards certain stimuli. To do so, participants are very quickly shown pictures of either White or Black faces prior to seeing an ambiguous stimulus that participants don’t know the meaning of (e.g., a Chinese character or an abstract shape). Participants are then asked to what extent they think that the ambiguous stimulus is good or bad. Research shows that the more that people have negative gut reactions to Black faces, the more likely they are to believe that the ambiguous stimulus is bad after being very briefly exposed to Black, but not White faces. This is because they misattribute their negative gut reactions towards the faces to the ambiguous stimulus. The AMP regularly shows that people vary in how much they have negative gut reactions to Black faces, with some people having highly negative gut reactions and some people having rather neutral gut reactions to Black faces. Critically, we hypothesized that it was not just how negative participants’ gut reaction was that mattered for prejudice, but also how they made meaning of that gut reaction as feelings of specific emotions. We reasoned that if participants interpreted their gut reaction as fear towards Black Americans that this would result in more prejudiced behavior towards Black Americans. In contrast, we predicted that people who had negative gut reactions, but who interpreted their reaction as sympathy towards Black Americans due to their plight with racism and oppression throughout US history, would be less likely to show prejudiced behavior.

To test this hypothesis, we manipulated how people made meaning of their negative gut reactions. After completing the AMP, half the participants were told that it assessed feelings of fear towards Black Americans. The other half of participants were told that the AMP assessed feelings of sympathy towards Black Americans. Next, we measured participants’ reports of fear, sympathy, and their tendency to literally see Black faces as more aggressive. We found that only those participants who scored highly on the AMP, demonstrating their negative gut reactions to Black faces, who were also encouraged to interpret their reactions as fear were more likely to report finding Black Americans as threatening. Those participants were also more likely to see Black faces as more aggressive in a perceptual test. In contrast, participants with negative gut reactions on the AMP who interpreted their reactions as sympathy were less likely to report fear and to see Black faces as aggressive. Participants who were encouraged to interpret their gut reactions as fear were also more likely to show skin conductance responses–a measure of how much sweat is secreted on the skin and a physiological measure of increased emotional reactions–to pictures of Black faces.

These findings are evidence that we are not necessarily slaves to our emotions when it comes to prejudice. Even if you have negative gut reactions to people from another group, it’s how you make meaning of those reactions as specific emotions that ultimately matters for prejudice. These findings ultimately suggest that we can combat prejudice by changing people’s gut reactions and by changing how they make meaning of those gut reactions as specific emotions. Although changing the latter might ultimately be the most fruitful, it’s also likely to be difficult to do, as people’s gut reactions are automatic and unbidden. We might be better off getting people to learn to make meaning of their gut reactions in a more prosocial manner.

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Pride and Guilt: Affective Keys to Sustainability

Lisa Williams

By most accounts, the 2015 Paris COP21 Summit in December was a success. Member nations committed to restricting global warming to no more than 2°C, and ideally only 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels – largely by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. While such nation-level commitment is of utmost import, slowing or curbing the negative effects of climate change will also require people to take actions themselves. A body of recent research highlights how emotions might play a pivotal role in motivating such actions.

Empirical findings point to two specific emotions that might be at the heart of pro-environmental action: pride and guilt. Pride arises from engaging in socially-valued behaviors and reinforces doing them. Guilt, on the other hand, stems from performing socially-sanctioned behaviors and dissuades doing them.

It appears that the simple anticipation of pride or guilt carries the potential to shape pro-environmental behavior. Specifically, anticipated pride from engaging in sustainable behavior and guilt from not doing so promotes intentions to engage in sustainable consumption.1,2 As such, it appears that it would require no more than thinking about the pride one would feel after buying an electric car or the guilt over choosing to not install solar panels to bring about sustainable choices.

There is also promise that pride and guilt can be leveraged to promote sustainability at the group level. In one study, when guilt was elicited by thinking about the in-group’s responsibility for environmental damage, individuals endorsed efforts to redress the damage.3 Pride elicited by thinking about the in-group’s responsibility for environmental protection led individuals to endorse further environmental protection.

We have insight into why pride and guilt have these effects. Once feeling guilty or proud, individuals feel more responsible for their choices,4,5 thus increasing the likelihood that they take it upon themselves to make better choices. More generally, both pride and guilt promote self-control,6 which is key if individuals want to change entrenched past patterns of behavior.

Whether at the individual or group-level, felt in the moment or anticipated in the future, or via responsibility or self-control, it is clear that pride and guilt carry the power to lead us to engage in actions that benefit the environment. If we set personal sustainability targets, pride and guilt will provide the impetus to stick to them.Earth marble

The challenge, then, becomes how to capitalize on pride and guilt to maximize positive environmental behavior. Research in the context of voting behavior suggests that something as simple as the threat of publicizing individuals’ (in)action can be the spark to bring about these socially-oriented emotions, and, in so doing, behavioral change.7 In fact, I’d suggest that pride and guilt may underlie the success of the Neighbourhood Scoreboards Project,8 which investigated the effect of posting energy usage and ranking on the facades of houses in a neighborhood in Sydney, Australia. Simple outcome: a 2.5% drop in energy consumption.



1 Onwezen, M. C., Antonides, G., & Bartels, J. (2013). The Norm Activation Model: An exploration of the functions of anticipated pride and guilt in environmental behavior. Journal of Economic Psychology, 39, 141–153.

2 Onwezen, M. C., Bartels, J., & Antonides, G. (2014). The self‐regulatory function of anticipated pride and guilt in a sustainable and healthy consumption context. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(1), 53–68.

3  Harth, N. S., Leach, C. W., & Kessler, T. (2013). Guilt, anger, and pride about in-group environmental behavior: Different emotions predict distinct intentions. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 34, 18–26.

4 Antonetti, P., & Maklan, S. (2014). Feelings that make a difference: How guilt and pride convince consumers of the effectiveness of sustainable consumption choices. Journal of Business Ethics, 124(1), 117–134.

5 Antonetti, P., & Maklan, S. (2014). Exploring postconsumption guilt and pride in the context of sustainability. Psychology and Marketing, 31(9), 717–735.

6 Hofmann, W., & Fisher, R. R. (2012). How guilt and pride shape subsequent self-control. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 682–690.

7 Panagopoulos, C. (2010). Affect, social pressure and prosocial motivation: Field experimental evidence of the mobilizing effects of pride, shame and publicizing voting behavior. Political Behavior, 32, 369–386.

8 Vande Moere, A., Tomitsch, M., Hoinkis, M., Johansen, S., & Trefz, E. (2011). Comparative Feedback in the Street: Exposing Residential Energy Consumption on House Facades. Proceedings of 13th IFIP TC13 Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (INTERACT ’11), Part I, LNCS 6946, Springer: 470-488.


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Bipolar Disorder and the Balancing Act of Emotions

Jasmine Mote

The United States is a culture deeply invested in the pursuit of happiness. But what if feeling excited or ambitious could lead to devastating consequences, such as going bankrupt, hospitalization, or harming yourself?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness where people experience manic episodes, which for some are characterized by intense feelings of euphoria, pride, or excitement. In common parlance, people often use the terms “bipolar” or “manic” in a derogatory sense, to mean “crazy” (e.g., “She is totally bipolar”). But in reality, bipolar disorder is a serious psychiatric condition with specific symptoms surrounding waves of extreme positive emotion and waves of depression. You’d think that experiencing a lot of positive emotion would be a good thing, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  Feeling too good can have negative consequences.

June Gruber at the University of Colorado, Boulder, among others, has shown that people with bipolar disorder experience more positive emotions and for a longer duration than people who do not, even if they are not experiencing a manic episode (for a review of this literature, go here). Manic episodes may also be characterized for others by intense feelings of irritability and general emotional instability. Overall, however, while manic episodes may feel good for some people, they also lead to an increase in engaging in risky behavior (such as reckless driving) and impulsivity, among other symptoms, and can damage interpersonal relationships, cause severe financial stress, or lead to suicide. Further, many people with bipolar disorder also experience depression between manic episodes, where they may feel sad, not enjoy things that they used to enjoy, find it hard to do everyday tasks, and also have thoughts of suicide.

Balancing ActBalancing emotions in bipolar disorder can be tricky when both feeling good and feeling bad have severe consequences, and some people may decide that it’s simply too risky to put themselves into situations that can cause too much happiness. Research has shown that some people with bipolar disorder try to reduce, or dampen, the positive emotions in their lives more than people without bipolar disorder. For example, they may try to not make a big deal out of positive experiences or avoid positive situations (such as pursuing romantic relationships) altogether to help them prevent a future manic episode. Such strategies lead people to report a lower quality of life and may ultimately put themselves at risk for depression.

So how can people with bipolar disorder stay healthy but also still experience the positive emotions that make life so enriching? As part of a team of researchers led by Sheri Johnson and Ann Kring at the University of California, Berkeley and Judy Moskowitz at Northwestern University, we are currently testing a group treatment intervention to increase healthy positive emotions in people with bipolar disorder. Based on Dr. Moskowitz’s work on interventions designed to increase positive emotion in other populations, such as in people with schizophrenia and people recently diagnosed with HIV, we have developed a 10-week group treatment intervention study called the Learning Affective Understanding for a Rich Emotional Life (LAUREL) Group. The group uses basic emotion research and teaches skills related to increasing positive emotions that have not been shown to significantly increase the risk of a manic episode, such as low activation positive emotions (e.g., calm, relaxation, serenity) and emotions focused on others (e.g., gratitude). Some examples of the skills we teach include emotion regulation strategies (e.g., changing the way we think to change the way we feel), mindfulness meditation, and self-compassion. The study is currently ongoing and we have already received a lot of positive feedback from previous group members. We hope that skills such as these can help people with bipolar disorder — in addition to their current treatments — navigate the balancing act of their emotions so that they can both stay healthy and feel good in their daily life.

Special thanks to Sheri Johnson, Ph.D., for her feedback on an earlier version of this post. 

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How to keep your New Year’s resolutions in 2015

Kristen Lindquist

Every year, as we finish a holiday season filled with festive libations, millions of people vow they’re going to get on the straight and narrow. We vow to get thinner, get healthier, spend less, and organize our lives in the coming year. Yet some estimates suggest that just 8% of us ultimately succeed in enacting these resolutions. The ardent pledges we make on December 31st very quickly recede into the background when the cookies, cigarettes, purchases, and distractions insidiously work their way back into our daily lives on January 1st and thereafter.

You might not be surprised that humans are so supremely terrible at controlling our own behavior–we’ve all experienced those moments when we said we weren’t going to engage in some behavior and then we do it again anyway. The problem is, we engage in those behaviors because they’re linked to rewards (sugar, nicotine, relaxation, fat, shiny new shoes, what have you), and our brains are programmed to want rewards in the here and now. This means that we not only need to pledge to get to the gym more, avoid drinking those extra beers, or incorporate more vegetables into our lives—we also need to enact those goals in daily life when the urge to sit on the couch, reach for a cold one, and order the fries rear their ugly heads. Not surprisingly, research shows that merely having an intention to do better doesn’t often translate into better behavior in the future (in one study, 47% of people who intended to engage in some goal never did).


Fortunately, there is hope for all of us who want to change this year. Self-control, or the ability to control your behavior, can be measured as a trait (much like other personality traits such as introversion, extraversion, agreeableness, etc.), and contrary to popular belief, people who enact their New Year’s Resolutions don’t just have Herculean self-control. Rather, people who score high in self-control actually report encountering problematic rewards less in daily life than do people who are low in self-control. This is likely because people high in self control set up their lives in a way that lets them avoid the strong lure of unwanted rewards (the cookies, beers, couches, and new shoes you’ve proclaimed you’ll avoid this year), well in advance of when those rewards are encountered. For instance, someone high in self-control who wants to drop a few pounds might do so by not keeping unhealthy foods in the house in the first place. People high in self-control seem to know that it’s relatively easy to avoid the cookie aisle when in the grocery store, but harder to avoid the cookies when they call from your pantry late at night. People high in self-control rarely find themselves eating a whole box of cookies at night because they’ve ensured that there are no cookies available to be eaten in the first place.

Research has also uncovered other means of helping people enact their goals. My colleague, Paschal Sheeran, is a health psychologist who studies how people’s “implementation intentions” can help them enact their health-related goals (like, eh hem, those goals you made for yourself around 11:59pm on Dec 31st). Implementation intentions involve making a simple “if-then” plan for your future behavior. Rather than just stating a goal, you come up with plans for achieving it that include information on when, where, and how you’ll enact that plan. For instance, rather than forming a general goal such as, “I won’t eat unhealthy foods this year,” you’d form a series of implementation intentions such as, “if they serve pizza at the office lunch, I’ll have only one piece,” or “if I make chicken nuggets for the kids, I’ll make myself a salad,” or “if they serve dessert at the party, I’ll have fruit instead of chocolate cake.” Just like the trick used by individuals high in self-control, the magic ingredient lies in making very specific plans for your behavior well in advance of being faced with a rewarding object. For instance, when staring down that extra slice of pizza at the office lunch, you don’t give the angel and devil sitting on your shoulders the opportunity to duke it out—you just automatically engage in the behavior you planned on—and take only one slice. By contrast, the traditional method of self-control asks you to hem and haw in the moment, trying to figure out a way to steer clear of that delicious, greasy pizza. By that point, the lure of the reward takes over, often even in those with Herculean strength of will. As simple as they seem, research shows that implementation intentions are quite effective—on average, using implementation intentions would make you about 3 times more effective at avoiding that extra slice of pizza.

So rather than just telling yourself that you’re going to lose weight this year, work out more, or make better financial decisions, set up your life in a way that makes it easier for you to avoid undesired rewards and make a set of clear implementation intentions for your behaviors. 2015 might just be the year that you enact your goals!


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