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Identity and Norms Down Under: My Research in Prejudice, Conflict, and Health in Australia

by Winnifred Louis, School of Psychology, University of Queensland

I’m delighted to be invited to contribute to Forward, to summarise my policy related research in Australia and to share with SPSSI members quick overviews of the Australian context for these issues. 

Psychologists are represented in Australia by (among others) the Australian Psychological Society (APS) and the Society for Australasian Social Psychology (SASP). The APS regularly issues position papers (e.g., “Psychology and the Natural Environment,” “The Psychological Aspects of Successful Ageing”, and “Racism and Prejudice”), which will provide interested readers with considerably more detail than I can give here (see  SASP is a smaller and less politically active organisation, and there is no national organisation such as SPSSI which lobbies to communicate social psychological research findings to politicians and to see them implemented in policy change.

To begin with a brief overview of the Australian political environment (see also ): the country has a population of around 20 million, largely urbanised, and enjoying a strong economy with record low unemployment figures and relatively strong prospects for growth.  A major policy change important to psychologists was introduced in 2007 when the universal health care system, Medicare, was expanded to subsidise clinical psychologists’ services.  An election in November 2007 then led to a change of power from the centre-right Liberal-National Coalition to the centre-left Australian Labor Party, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  The Rudd Labor government is also committed to supporting access to mental health through Medicare.  In its first few months of office, the government has introduced further progressive changes in several policy arenas, including rolling back industrial relations reforms which were widely seen as stripping workers of key rights and protections; ratifying the Kyoto accord; an “education revolution” which includes plans to increase funding for research; plans to improve health services across Australia; and issuing a long-awaited apology to Indigenous Australians for past government actions. 

My own background? After completing a PhD at McGill University with Professor Donald Taylor, I came to Australia in 2001 as a post-doctoral research fellow at School of Psychology at the University of Queensland.  Since 2005 I have been employed in a tenure track job as lecturer and now as senior lecturer.  The key areas of policy which my research has sought to address include: the treatment of asylum seekers, White-Indigenous relations, terrorism and the ‘war on terror,’ and normative influence on unhealthy behavior.

The Treatment of Asylum Seekers

Australia has grown less welcoming of foreigners over the last decade, like other Western nations.  Public hostility increased particularly strongly towards ‘asylum seekers,’ or refugee claimants.  Harsh measures were implemented to restrict asylum seekers’ ability to lodge refugee claims successfully, including mandatory detention centers at which onshore applicants for asylum status were kept for months or even years.

My research examined this widespread hostility in relation to social identity and social influence processes.  One study of Australian voters (Louis, Duck, Terry, Schuller, & Lalonde, 2007) focused on factors such as identification with Australia, perception of normative support for harsh treatment, and perceived threat of asylum seekers to the nation.  We found these intergroup perceptions motivated hostile attitudes, speaking out against asylum seekers during an election, and voting for parties that were advocating restrictive measures.  From a theoretical perspective, it was interesting to find that procedural and distributive fairness judgements were apparently serving to rationalize group threat reactions, serving as mediators between intergroup factors and political attitudes and action.  In another study, Nickerson and Louis (2008) observed that a “human identity” was associated with positive attitudes towards foreign asylum seekers.  An inclusive human identity also seemed to defuse the link between national identity and prejudice towards foreign refugees, consistent with dual identity approaches. 

White-Indigenous Relations

Indigenous Australians comprise about 2% of the Australian population, and suffer markedly worse outcomes across domains such as employment, health, and housing.  The Rudd Labor government has committed to ‘close the gap’ in health outcomes between White and Indigenous Australians within 25 years.  The national apology to Indigenous Australians in March this year is widely seen as a symbolic turning point, but tangible outcomes for Indigenous communities have not yet been documented.

In a series of studies with Fiona Barlow, Katharine Greenaway, and Emerald Quinn, I have explored the antecedents of White Australian racism and attempted to test prejudice reduction models in the local context.  Focusing first on the human identity, we found that while Indigenous Australians become more favourable to White Australians when thinking of them as fellow humans, assign them less collective guilt, and show lower intentions to engage in collective action, White Australians’ attitudes and low support for reconciliation remain unchanged.  A positive direct effect of human identity and positive human norms on attitudes and political support is observed, but is suppressed by a backlash whereby Whites show lower guilt and more legitimisation of the status quo when thinking of Indigenous Australians as fellow humans. 

Similarly, a study on the beneficial impact of contact did support the link between contact and lower modern racism, but also showed high levels of avoidance and a vicious cycle in which low levels of contact fuelled perceptions that Indigenous Australians rejected White Australians, which in turn motivated intentions to avoid further contact.  Subsequent research demonstrated that White participants’ racism against Indigenous Australians as a group increases when rejected in an interpersonal encounter by a single Indigenous Australian, when rejection perceptions are either lowered or heightened (relative to a control condition), and even when participants read about an unpunished hate crime against an Indigenous target.  To date, only information that other ingroup members oppose racism has been associated with lower racism in our laboratory; a reliable effect, but one less amenable to government deployment in intervention campaigns where racism is (accurately) seen as widespread.
Terrorism and the ‘War on Terror’

Australia provided military support to the American-led ‘Coalition of the Willing,’ sending troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq, and lending diplomatic support to the broader ‘War on Terror’.  Australians suffered particularly in the 2002 Bali suicide bombings, in which 88 Australians died (with 124 others).  Compared to the Howard Coalition government, the Rudd Labor government appears more supportive of multilateral diplomatic engagement, but remains strongly publicly committed to American alliance and the ‘War on Terror’.

My research engagement with this issue has been twofold.  Two theory and review papers focused on the identity and intergroup dynamics which might motivate terrorism and responses to terror.  I argued that there was a danger (Louis & Taylor, 2002) and that subsequent research confirmed (Louis, 2008) that the “war on terror” would increase identification with terrorists among moderate Muslims and spread normative beliefs that violent tactics were appropriate.  A second line of research examined identity and normative influence in war support and opposition, and willingness to engage in democratic collective action (e.g., Hornsey et al., 2006).  I also developed a line of research on anti-Americanism, as distinct from political opposition to the US.  This interesting form of prejudice against a high status group has also increased markedly in the past few years.  In Australia, anti-Americanism is inhibited by factors such as authoritarianism and social dominance (e.g., Louis, Terry, Pike, and Rijnbout, unpublished manuscript).

Normative influence on (un)healthy behavior

The most recent line of research in my lab focuses on the way in which unhealthy behavior can be fuelled by identity and intergroup dynamics.  Louis, Davies, Terry, and Smith (2007) presents data showing that perceptions that unhealthy eating is normative for university students are associated with poorer health decisions, even after other predictors are controlled.  Current studies test the model that campaigns targeted to particular groups promote perceptions that members of these groups are unhealthy or approve of unhealthy behavior (following up on Cialdini’s norm focus model and exploring the intergroup dynamics).  I am presenting two studies demonstrating backlash effects whereby health campaigns increase unhealthy behavior at this June’s SPSSI convention – perhaps I will see some readers there!

In closing, I would like to restate that I appreciate the opportunity to summarize some of my recent research for fellow SPSSI members, and to share quick snapshots of the Australian research context for these issues.

Full references for my published research are available from my web page at the School of Psychology, .  For unpublished studies, please contact me at

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