Identifying Package Deals of Prejudice
On October 27, 2018, a gunman killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On March 15, 2019, 51 people were shot dead at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Where did the perpetrators’ hatred toward Jews and Muslims come from?
One approach to answering that question is to look for separate, specific explanations for anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim prejudice. Another approach is to look at what these prejudices have in common. People who are anti-Semitic tend to also be anti-Muslim. Understanding such commonalities might open the door to shared treatments, just like medical treatments can be based on understanding commonalities of infections (most bacteria can be treated with antibiotics, for instance).
It has been long known that many prejudices are linked together. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim individuals tend to also derogate people who are old, overweight, gay, Black, and so on. This “package deal” of biases is called generalized prejudice. To date, research has focused on generalized prejudice against groups that are marginalized in society. However, little is known about other potential prejudice packages, for instance those carried by people on the political left. Prejudices obviously differ in severity (just like infections), but a comprehensive understanding of the problem calls for looking beyond the most obvious and damaging prejudices.
Recently, Mark Brandt (Michigan State University) and I explored what forms of generalized prejudice we could find in the United States. We focused on how warm or cold people feel about roughly 40 different groups that were picked based on previous research that had asked people, “Off the top of your head, what various types of people do you think today’s society categorizes into groups?”
We found three kinds of generalized prejudice in the United States. The broadest package, including the most target groups, centered on marginalized groups such as Muslims, Black people, poor people, gay men, and lesbians. The second package included privileged and conservative groups, such as upper class people, jocks, and Republicans. Interestingly, although Jews and Asians are stereotyped as competent and successful, prejudice against these groups did not belong with biases against privileged groups. Instead, anti-Semitic and anti-Asian biases went in the same package as anti-Black and anti-poor prejudice (the marginalized group package). One interpretation why is that some people derogate any group challenging the standing of the most privileged groups in society, like White Christians.
The third package of prejudice included groups with unconventional or “progressive” values, such as Democrats and atheists. However, the third kind of prejudice was double-edged: People who like atheists and other unconventional groups were also found to be more negative toward groups with traditional values, like Christians. In other words, people tend to like either Christians or atheists, but rarely both.
Who carries these different prejudice packages? Prejudices against marginalized as well privileged groups were associated with personality differences, but not with social class identification. In other words, it is not simply the case that wealthy people dislike the poor, and vice versa. Instead, people’s empathic concern (being motivated to help people in need) and openness to new experiences (having an appetite for trying new things) matter. Individuals high on these traits feel warmer about marginalized groups, irrespective of their own social standing. Yet, people with these dispositions were not without biases. Empathic and open-minded people have more biases against privileged and conservative groups.
We also found that liberals were more negative toward traditional groups and conservatives were more negative toward progressive groups (not surprising, right?). More important, though, these biases seem “symmetrical” in the sense that ideologues on both sides dislike groups that promote other values than their own. Put differently, it was not the case that conservative values were more aligned with prejudice—liberals were just as biased, but against other targets. Here, you might rightfully ask if demeaning attitudes about Christians in the United States are as harmful as demeaning attitudes about Black people. One could also ask if some kinds of anti-group negativity are more justified than others. These are important questions, but they are separate from the questions of whether and how prejudices cluster together.
While our results come from self-reported questionnaires and online samples, several findings align with other research. For example, a package of prejudice against marginalized groups has been found in large and diverse (nationally representative) samples in the United States, Germany, Sweden, and New Zealand. As such, we believe the findings provide insights about what packages of prejudice different people tend to carry.
Uncovering these patterns is good, but what can be done about them? We would like to develop further the analogy to infection, to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections. Even if infections may require specific treatments, it is helpful to know what broad category they fall in. Most efforts to reduce prejudice focus on changing people’s thinking in terms of “us” versus “them,” for instance through contact with people from other groups. Our findings (and other research) suggest that attitudes about groups with different values fit this bill (e.g., reducing biases between different religious groups), but that might not be the case for attitudes about many privileged and marginalized groups. Actually, people who belong to a marginalized group tend to derogate their own group, if they are prejudiced against other marginalized groups. For instance, racist women are typically sexist too—but against other women, not men. These biases do not fit with an us-them psychology. Thus, using existing prejudice-reduction methods can be akin to treating a virus infection with antibiotics (simple contact is an unlikely cure for sexism). Understanding broad forms of prejudice represent a first step toward updated and better ways to help people get along.
For Further Reading
Bergh, R., & Brandt, M. J. (2021). Mapping principal dimensions of prejudice in the United States. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000360
Bergh, R., Akrami, N., Sidanius, J., & Sibley, C. G. (2016). Is group membership necessary for understanding generalized prejudice? A re-evaluation of why prejudices are interrelated. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(3), 367–395. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000064
Brandt, M. J., & Crawford, J. T. (2020). Worldview conflict and prejudice. In B. Gawronski (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 61, pp. 1–66). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aesp.2019.09.002
Robin Bergh is an Associate Professor at Uppsala University, Sweden. He studies prejudice, inequality, and group extremism.