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Deborah Wu  
Stylianos Syropoulos  
Adrian Rivera-Rodriguez  
Nilanjana Dasgupta  

Predictors of Anti-Asian Prejudice during COVID-19: Threat and Negative Emotions 

Deborah Wu, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Stylianos Syropoulos, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Adrian Rivera-Rodriguez, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Nilanjana Dasgupta, University of Massachusetts Amherst  

According to sociofunctional theories of emotion, outgroup prejudice can be explained by the unique negative emotions felt towards an outgroup and the perceived threats that the outgroup poses to their ingroup (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005). For example, if someone perceives that an outgroup poses a threat to their ingroup’s health (e.g., through a disease), they may feel disgust towards that outgroup. 

These perceived threats are often based on stereotypes. For example, Asian Americans have been historically stereotyped as a model minority, or a racial minority group that has achieved great economic success. Due to this stereotype, non-Asian Americans’ prejudice towards Asians is explained by their feelings of anxiety and perceived economic threat (Butz & Yogeeswaran, 2011). However, since the COVID-19 virus originated in China, racial attacks against Asians have increased in the U.S., with people blaming Asians for the existence of the virus (Tavernise & Oppel, 2020). Thus, we sought to examine how attitudes regarding Asians in the U.S. have shifted due to COVID-19 and whether the negative emotions that predict anti-Asian prejudice would also shift. Specifically, we wanted to investigate how negative emotions about the COVID-19 pandemic could be misdirected by increasing prejudice towards Asians.   

The present study aimed to examine:  

  1. whether the threat of having contracted COVID-19 (current risk perceptions) or the threat of contracting COVID-19 in the future (future risk perceptions), predicted anti-Asian prejudice, 

  1. which specific negative emotions (disgust, anxiety, fear, and anger) predicted anti-Asian prejudice,  

  1. whether the threat of contracting COVID-19 would impact negative emotions and prejudice over time.  

To address these aims, we conducted a 3-wave longitudinal correlational study that took place during the onset of the pandemic, in March, April, and May 2020. We recruited 486 non-Asian Americans from Amazon Mechanical Turk. At each timepoint, participants reported their perceptions of how likely it was that they had already contracted the virus (current risk perceptions) and how likely it was that they would contract the virus in the future (future risk perceptions), as well as how much disgust, anxiety, fear, and anger they felt regarding the COVID-19 situation in the U.S. Anti-Asian prejudice was measured by asking participants how much they blamed Asians for the spread of the pandemic in the U.S., the extent to which Asian discrimination was justified because of COVID-19, and the extent to which they dehumanized Asian people. 

At each timepoint, using multiple linear regressions to control for other types of threats or emotions, we found that current risk perceptions of contracting COVID-19 (and not future risk perceptions) consistently predicted greater prejudice, while only disgust (and not anxiety, fear, or anger) about the current COVID-19 situation consistently predicted greater anti-Asian prejudice. Furthermore, in a longitudinal path model, greater belief that one had contracted COVID-19 in March predicted greater feelings of disgust in April (while controlling for emotions in March), which in turn led to greater anti-Asian prejudice in May (while controlling for prejudice in April).  

While previous work on outgroup emotions and prejudice has focused on the impact of longstanding stereotypes, our investigation shows that outgroup perceptions are flexible and context-dependent. In our studies, we find that the COVID-19 pandemic increased anti-Asian attitudes and shifted the emotional predictors of anti-Asian prejudice, as feelings of disgust (and not anxiety) predicted increased prejudice. 


Butz, D. A. & Yogeeswaran, K. (2011).  A new threat in the air: Macroeconomic threat increases prejudice against Asian Americans. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(1), 22–27. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.07.014 

Cottrell, C. A., & Neuberg, S. L. (2005). Different emotional reactions to different groups: A sociofunctional threat-based approach to “prejudice”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(5), 770 –789. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.5.770 

Tavernise, S. & Oppel, R. A. (2020, April 10). Spit on, yelled at, attacked: Chinese-Americans fear for their safety. The New York Times. 

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