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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