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Robin Bergh

Runner up, 2017 Gordon Allport Prize



Do generally prejudiced individuals care about “us” versus “them”?

A classic idea in the prejudice literature is that biases come as a package deal. Those who are most biased against ethnic minorities tend to also be biased against religious and sexual minorities, and so on. Another classic notion is that people tend to regard their own groups as better than most other groups. Both ideas have extensive support, but are they capturing the same thing? Pioneering scholars like Adorno and Allport believed so, and many have followed their lead, arguing that a person’s prejudice package (formally called generalized prejudice) is about “us” versus “them.” We examined if that conventional wisdom is correct, noting that there are good alternative explanations for why different prejudices are interrelated.

Studies of generalized prejudice focus on marginalized groups, meaning that the ingroup-outgroup explanation is confounded with the impact of low status and power. In our paper we sought to disentangle derogation of outgroups from denigration of lower status groups, and we asked which better explains generalized prejudice. Similarly, we also examined what is most characteristic of “prejudiced personalities”: Are open-minded and empathic individuals less biased against outgroups (the classic assumption), or is it perhaps that they are they less biased against marginalized groups?

In a series of minimal group experiments, we first showed that “pure” ingroup biases (stripped of confounds like status) are unrelated to generalized prejudice against, for example, immigrants and people with disabilities. Personality predicted generalized prejudice as usual, but not the ingroup biases. Likewise, personality did not predict attitudes about foreigners in general, but it strongly predicted attitudes about lower status group within one’s society. We further showed that women and overweight individuals who score high on generalized prejudice devalue their own groups. Finally, we demonstrated that attitudes about majorities and high status groups do not reveal as strong or broad commonalities as attitudes about low status groups. Moreover, personality was more predictive of the latter. Taken together, seven studies (including two national representative samples) all indicated that generalized prejudice, as traditionally studied, tends to be more about denigration of low status groups than an ingroup-outgroup dynamic.

The broader implications of this research are twofold. First, prejudice researchers could take more care to analyze when group identities are important or not for explaining prejudice. Measuring attitudes about outgroups doesn’t mean that the ingroup-outgroup distinction is the primary cause of why people think what they do about them. Second, a focus on group identity limits the search for alternative prejudice interventions. Virtually all prejudice interventions to date are based on changing the mentality of “us” versus “them.” Still, if bigots don’t care that much about outgroups, but rather the traditional (and hierarchical) order in society, then perhaps they may be more effectively targeted with a different style of intervention. By counteracting White Supremacists, for instance, one could shift the focus from their White identity to instead intervening against their (broader) supremacy beliefs.  In the end, to combat prejudice we need to understand what motivates different individuals, beyond conventional wisdom about ingroup favoritism.

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