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Hate Crimes: Psychological Research on the Origins and Impact of Bias-Motivated Crime

For a .PDF version of this fact sheet, please click here.


Hate crime is defined as any felony or crime of violence that manifests prejudice toward a group of persons and can be understood as the extreme expression of prejudice.[1]  Treating hate crimes as other felonies or violence crimes is insufficient because they have more severe health consequences, affect entire communities, and are divisive.

What Is Different About Hate Crimes?

Hate crimes, compared to other violent crimes, have a broader impact on victims and communities because they target people for core aspects of identity.

David Ritcheson, who testified in the House of Representatives on behalf of hate crime legislation, discussed the fear and uncertainty he experienced following hate crime victimization ( Sadly, Ritcheson took his own life this past July. His efforts to combat hate crime were honored in the U.S. House of Representatives (H. Res. 535, July 23, 2007).

Policy Implications

Current federal law (18 U.S.C. §245) defines hate crimes as felonies or violent acts that are directed at an individual because of his or her race, color, religion or national origin. It does not cover all groups affected by hate crimes. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Protection Act (H.R. 1592) and Matthew Shephard Act (S.1105), both introduced during the 110th Congress, would extend coverage to individuals victimized on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability.

Without action, many hate crimes committed in our country will go unrecognized, unprosecuted, and unpunished. Targets of prejudice will continue to be attacked and suffer physical and mental health consequences.

Research Findings

Available psychological research provides strong support for the need for this legislation.

Long-Term Mental Health Impact of Hate Crimes

Victims of hate crimes are at heightened risk for psychological distress beyond that of the consequences of violent crime in general.[2]  Psychological distress following victimization by hate crime can include depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.[3]

Impact on the Community that Shares the Victim’s Identity

Hate crimes threaten the group that the victim belongs to in addition to the particular individual.[4]  Members of a community targeted because of a central identity (e.g., one’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation) may feel less safe after a fellow group member is targeted.[5]  Witnessing discrimination against someone who is from the same group as oneself (e.g., same gender, ethnicity) can lead to depressed emotion and lower self-esteem.[6]  

Prevention: Understanding Hate and Methods for Reducing Prejudice

Social psychological research offers a perspective on the underlying processes of hate that can inform prevention.

Motivations for hate crimes include desire for excitement and power display, defense of turf, mission to rid world of inferior groups, and retaliation for a real or perceived hate crime.[7]  Hate may build up over time through a self-reinforcing cycle of predisposing contexts, negative attitudes, shared stereotypes, strong emotions, moral justifications, and hateful behaviors.[8]  Severe hate simplistically stereotypes targets and involves moral condemnation and enthusiasm for inflicting harm.[9]

Research indicates that perspective taking, contact with other groups under certain conditions, and highlighting common group identities can reduce prejudice.[10]


The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) is an international group of approximately 3000 psychologists, allied scientists, students, and others who share a common interest in research on the psychological aspects of important social issues. In various ways, the Society seeks to bring theory and practice into focus on human problems of the group, the community, and nations, as well as the increasingly important problems that have no national boundaries.

For more information, please contact Jutta Tobias, Ph.D., SPSSI James Marshall Public Policy Fellow.

Fact sheet created by Carrie Langner, Ph.D.; January 2008.

1. Herek, G. M. (1992). Psychological heterosexism and anti-gay violence: The social psychology of bigotry and bashing. In Herek, G. M. & Berrill, K. T. (Eds.) Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 149-169.

2. Herek, G. M., Gillis, J. R., & Cogan, J. C. (1999). Psychological sequelae of hate crime victimization among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67, 945-951; and Sullaway, M. (2004). Psychological perspectives on hate crime laws. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 10(3), 250-292.

3. Bisson, J. I., & Shepherd, J. P. (1995). Psychological reactions of victims of violent crimes. British Journal of Psychiatry, 167, 718-720; and Weaver, T. L., & Clum, G. A. (1995). Psychological distress associated with interpersonal violence: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychological Review, 15, 115-140.

4. Sullaway, M. (2004)

5. Boeckmann, R. J., & Turpin-Petrosino, C. (2002). Understanding the harm of hate crime. Journal of Social Issues, 58(2), 207-226.

6. McCoy, S. K., & Major, B. (2003). Group identification moderates emotional responses to perceived prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(8), 1005-1017.

7. McDevitt, J., Levin, J., & Bennett, S. (2002). Hate crime offenders: An expanded typology. Journal of Social Issues, 58(2), 303-318.

8. Opotow, S., & McClelland, S. (2007). The intensification of hating: A theory. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 68-97.

9. Opotow, S. (2005). Hate, conflict, and moral exclusion. In Sternberg, R. J. (ed.), The Psychology of Hate, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 121-153.
Cook, S. W. (1978). Interpersonal and attitudinal outcomes in cooperating interracial groups. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 12, 97-113; Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (2000). Reducing Intergroup Bias: The Common Ingroup Identity Model. Philadelphia: Psychology Press; Esses, V. M., Dovidio, J. F., Jackson, L. M., & Armstrong, T. L. (2001). The immigration dilemma: The role of perceived group competition, ethnic prejudice, and national identity. Journal of Social Issues 57(3), 389–412.; Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2002). Perspective Taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 708-724; and

10. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751-783.