Research paper: Prejudice and group behaviour

Prejudice is an unfavourable attitude towards another person or persons simply because of their perceived membership of a particular group. Like all attitudes it will be made up of (to varying degrees) cognition, affect and conation, (Dovido, Hewstone, Glick, & Esses, 2010), thus driving how the individual feels about, thinks about and/or behaves towards a target group or group member. The etymology of the word “prejudice” implies that the attitude precedes judgement, (Latin: “prae” meaning “beforehand”, or “in advance”, and “judicium” meaning “judgement”), or, in other words, prejudice is an attitude that manifests as a result of various influences but before rational appraisal.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the extent to which group-level (as distinct from individual-level) explanations, can help understand the origin and strength of prejudice towards a group or its members. To be clear, group-level explanations focus on explaining the prejudice of an individual as a function of his or her membership of a group – the “in-group”. The prejudice itself is directed at other individuals based on their membership of a group distinct from that of the prejudiced individual – the “out-group”, or target group. By contrast, individual-level explanations focus on the distinct personality traits of individuals as a means to explain prejudice in that individual. The two approaches are typically thought of as being diametrically opposed, and plenty of research has been conducted by proponents of each to try to resolve which is “right”, (Hodson & Dhont, 2015). In order to show how group-level explanations contribute to our understanding of prejudice, this paper will first look at individual-level explanations and see where they fail to provide a full understanding, and then explore the extent to which group-level explanations contribute. This approach will also serve to follow the progress of the debate chronologically, as research into prejudice (broadly speaking) began with an exploration of individual factors, (Duckitt J. , 2010) and then group-level explanations were introduced as a challenge, (Reynolds K. J., Turner, Haslam, & Ryan, 2001), and more recently there have been attempts to synthesize the two, (Hodson & Dhont, 2015).

Before the early 20th Century there was little concern with prejudice. Until then it was generally and unquestioningly accepted that certain races, peoples and classes were superior to others in cognitive, behavioural and moral dimensions so the idea of prejudice was otiose, (Haller, 1971). It was only in the 1920s that researchers started to question racial superiority, and found that differences in the abilities of different races could not explain the relative social deprivation of one versus another, so the question “why?” was first posed, (Milner, 1975). The answer was, quite simply, prejudice; but this merely prompts the question of how prejudice itself originates.

It could simply be that a particular combination of personality traits explains why some individuals tend towards prejudicial attitudes. After the second war, and no doubt reflecting its horrors, prejudice came to be characterised as a pathology. In 1950 Adorno et al hypothesised that there was a personality type – the authoritarian – with a psycho-dynamic origin in childhood caused by overbearing parents and manifested in an aggressively prejudicial attitude towards all out-groups, (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, & Sanford, 1950). An alternative hypothesis of the origin of the authoritarian personality type is that it is born out of a confluence of three factors which are developed through education and modelled during adolescence: (i) unhesitating acceptance of authority, (ii) hostility towards out-groups and (iii) cleaving to conventional mores, (Altemeyer B. , 1998). Allport went on, in 1954, to identify the type, framing it less as a pathology and more as a set of normal traits characterised by cognitive inflexibility and discomfort with uncertainty, allied to a proneness for fear and a pessimistic view of humanity. These traits then, would arise in some individuals but not others, and would explain the emergence in a given individual of general out-group bias, (Allport, 1954).

Another way in which an individual’s personality type can be characterised is “social dominance orientation”. This orientation deals with the extent to which an individual has a preference for a structured, ordinal ranking of societal groups: “the rich man in his castle, and the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate” as the well-known hymn says, (written by C.F. Alexander, 1818-1895). Individuals with high levels of social dominance orientation will have a strong commitment to the hierarchy of groups in a social system, (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), and will be likely to subscribe to, and propagate, narratives that maintain that hierarchy, (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994).

It might be argued that a combination of high levels of Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation lead to a greater likelihood of conservatism, and that perhaps this political dimension is another way of categorising those individual differences that lead to prejudice, (Hodson & Dhont, 2015). But on the other hand there is an equally coherent argument that conservatives and liberals are equally prejudiced against out-groups, (Brandt, Reyna, Chambers, Crawford, & Wetherell, 2014), but the political difference between them relates nature of their respective out-groups. Similarly, religiosity is an individual difference that may explain prejudice. Most religions preach the value of mutual respect and tolerance, but also identify “sinners”, (or apostates or infidels), as obvious out-groups who are devalued, and thus maybe subject to prejudice. An individual’s drive to religiosity can affect the extent to which they adopt a prejudicial attitude to the out-group members relevant to their particular belief. If the reasons are rooted in personal faith or belief, then the conversion of religion into prejudice seems to be less common, but where religion is assumed in order to progress in society prejudice is a likely corollary, (Hunsberger & Jackson, 2005). The extent to which the individual adopts a fundamentalist approach to their belief is another contributor to the likelihood that religiosity will translate into prejudice, (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992).

But turning to broader and deeper understanding of individual personality differences, the well-known and common approach is the “Big Five” framework (Costa, McCrae, & Dye, 1991). The five categories, (Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) may open the door to understanding an individual’s inclination to prejudice. In theory, one might expect individuals with low levels of Openness and Agreeableness to be more likely to harbour prejudice, and this is borne out by much research. Studies have found that the remaining three factors have a much lower relationship to prejudice (Hodson & Dhont, 2015).

Thus there might be a set of individual characteristics that lead people to be prone to prejudice. This would imply that if an individual has a prejudice against one group, he/she will also likely be prejudiced against any and all other out-groups. As Allport put it, some individuals are simply “anti-any out-group”, (Allport, 1954). Indeed, a study of students in New Zealand showed that there was a correlation between prejudice levels against multiple groups – the mentally handicapped, Africans, terrorists, drug-dealers, protestors and feminists, (Duckitt & Sibley, 2007). Interestingly, and in accordance with the idea that an inclination to prejudice may genuinely be a function to individual character traits, these levels of generalised prejudice seem to hold constant over time, (Zick, 2008). Furthermore, research has shown that a generalised inclination towards prejudice is inheritable. Lewis and Bates studies if twins found that prejudicial attitudes, and in particular a tendency towards in-group favouritism, is passed down genetically through the generations, (Lewis & Bates, 2010).

However, these individual-level explanations do not seem to account for those instances of prejudice that pertain to entire societies. If only some individuals have an authoritarian personality prone to prejudice, how come all Whites in South Africa or the American South, for example, appeared to be similarly prejudiced against Blacks?, (Duckitt J. , 2010). It seemed that these manifestations of prejudice ignored or transcended individual differences; rather, the entire group held the same prejudice irrespective of their diverse personality types. Equally challenging to the idea that individual-differences account for prejudice is the fact that prejudice levels in a population seem to change rapidly from one period to the next whilst (presumably) the traits of individuals within it have remained fairly stable, (Bergh, Akrami, & Ekehammer, 2010). Perhaps it is indeed a group, not an individual, phenomenon to have an unfavourable attitude towards another person or persons simply because they are members of a particular group.

One of the earlier group-level explanations that emerged was Social Identity Theory. Based on the observation that people tend to categorise others as being similar or different as a natural cognitive process, Social Identity Theory goes on to suggest that the categorisation will be followed by behavioural discrimination, (Abrams & Hogg, 2010). The cognitive process of categorisation seems to be triggered under the merest provocation. The impulse to categorise into objects and fellow humans into groups is deeply rooted – the world is a complex place, and heuristics for navigating it are essential to prevent overload. And in the process of categorising we tend to highlight the similarities of intra-group members, and, equally, overstate the distinctiveness of inter-group characteristics, (Tjajel, 1969). This stereotyping is not only a cognitive process; it also causes behavioural and affective changes. Simply dividing people up into groups, even on completely spurious or random factors, triggers in-group identification. The mere fact of being in a group can have the effect of causing individuals to demonstrate in-group favouritism, and even maximisation of the difference between in-group and out-group outcomes at the expense of overall returns, (Tajfel, Billlig, & Bundy, 1971). So people who identify with a group then seem to very swiftly and easily, even automatically, tend to favour that group over other groups. Their behaviour then is orientated to protect, promote and increase the distinctiveness of their own group, and this will result in prejudice and discrimination.

At any given moment, multiple groups are accessible for membership. The range of groups an individual is in will create the definitions of “us“ versus” them”, hence helping understand who is perceived as an in-group member, and who is an out-group member. For example, an individual might at any time see themselves as a Southampton Football Club fan, a Chartered Accountant, a resident of Winchester, an angler, and a member of the liberal elite. If membership of a particular in-group is salient, it will trigger behaviour in accordance with social identity over personal identity. The drivers of which groups become salient at a particular moment are accessibility, (i.e. a group that is frequently used or contextually relevant) and fit, (i.e. explain what people are saying a doing), (Oakes, 1987). If a group is easily accessible and fits the situation well, individuals will join it, and adopt the according social identity. Examples of these forces at play help explain differences in “helping behaviour” when football fans see an injured person, and categorise them (based on priming) as a supporter or a rival club, or as a fellow football fan (albeit of that rival club), (Levine, Prosser, Evans, & Reicher, 2005).

So how intensely do individuals identify themselves as being part of a group? Leach et al propose a useful hierarchy of in-group identification: individuals may (or may not) define themselves as members of a group, and then they may (or may not) invest themselves in that membership. Self-definition arises as a result of the extent to which individuals firstly see similarities between group members and themselves (self stereo-typing); and then the extent that the group then shares common characteristics, is coherent, and can distinguish itself from other groups, (in-group homogeneity). Given self-definition as a group member, the second dimension is “self-investment”. This covers the extent to which individuals find satisfaction (i.e. feel good about the group), solidarity, (i.e. feel a sense of belonging in the group), and centrality, (i.e. how contextually important group membership is) with regard to membership of the group in question, (Leach, et al., 2008). So, if individuals strongly self-identify and self-invest in a group they are likely to see the more relevant group membership will be to understanding group-level explanations of behaviour, affect and cognition, including prejudice.

One way in which this self-definition and self-investment as a group member may manifest is “depersonalisation”. As individuals become group members the fact of being a member of the group replaces or erodes their identity as individuals, (Reynolds & Turner, 2006). This would then help to explain how prejudice could characterise an entire society; perhaps it can be understood as a type of cultural norm that overwhelms individual differences, (Proshansky, 1966). If so, new norms could be presumably be created by creating new institutions and forms of interaction between groups, thus eroding prejudice. However, this optimistic view of society was confounded by the seeming intractability of racial prejudice in the US. Indeed, some attempts to change cultural and organisational norms seemed merely to harden prejudice, albeit having some effect on changing its form from overt to covert, (Fairchild & P., 1978). So it seems that prejudice is more deeply rooted than a mere social norm, and that in-groups have a strong need to be prejudiced against out-groups that survives changes in institutional structures.

Once individuals self-define and self-invest in a group, there are a number of explanations of the forces at work in driving individuals to adopt in-group bias or out-group derogation beyond mere norms. One is that it group identification is connected to self-esteem; individuals might actively seek to promote the group they belong to in order to enhance their self-esteem, or possibly compensate for low self-esteem, (Ambrams & Hogg, 1988). A second explanation is uncertainty-reduction; individuals may identify with a given group in order to adopt an extant set of behaviours, protocols and mores. In the face of uncertainty about how to act, in other words, a group can provide a template for behaviour, (Hogg, 2007). The likelihood is that the two forces are at play at a given time.

So it could be that individuals form groups to enhance self-esteem, or to reduce uncertainty, and that can result in discriminatory behaviour. Another set of catalysts, however, might be the perception of out-group threats to the in-group, or competition with out-groups for scarce resources. The classic Robbers Cave study showed that simple competition between groups morphs into hostility, (Sherif, 1961). And beyond real competition there is also the possibility that the perception of competition can throw groups into conflict, enhancing the tendency to of individuals in the in-group to magnify the negative characteristics of the out-group, (Campbell, 1965). In many ways Social Identity Theory and Realistic Group Conflict are similar; they are both founded in the idea that an in-group will strive to increase its value (esteem, certainty, possessions) at the expense of or by contrast to an out-group, (Esses, Jackson, & Bennett-AbyAyyash, 2010).

Closely connected to theories of intergroup competition are hypotheses about the needs of groups to maintain their status or position relative to other groups. These theories can be classed into two broad groups – ideological and contextual. The Theory of Group Position, (Blumer, 1958) is the starting point; this suggests that group members assume certain rights and privileges; the fact that out-groups threaten these leads to hostility and thus prejudice. These assumptions may have ideological roots, (the theories of Social Dominance, System Justification and Terror Management) or contextual, target-orientated justification, (Integrated Threat Theory, and Stereotype Content Model), (Esses, Jackson, & Bennett-AbyAyyash, 2010). Both Social Dominance theory and System Justification theory broadly speaking propose that groups seek to legitimise extant hierarchy. The former suggests that group members see the world as a zero-sum system, and thus need to maintain their hegemony over out-groups in order to keep their position, (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). The latter theory similarly suggests that groups justify their dominance in terms of fairness based on superiority in traits like industriousness and cognitive abilities, (Just & Banaji, 1994). By contrast, the contextual approach looks at how groups perceive threats from competitive out-groups be they realistic or symbolic, (Stephan & Stephan, 2000).

The Stereotype content model explores how out-groups are perceived in a two-by-two matrix with competence on one axis, and warmth on the other. Those out-groups that are characterised as low-warmth and low-competence are subject to contemptuous prejudice, where those that are low warmth and high competence are subject to envy and jealousy. Even those groups that are seen as high warmth can be subject to a paternalistic form of prejudice if they are seen as being of low competence, (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). Out-groups subjected to contemptuous prejudice find their members treated as with contempt, anger and disgust, even to the point of being treated as sub-human, (Haslam, 2006).

So, how do group-level explanations contribute to our understanding of prejudice? Prejudice is an outcome of different factors in different contexts at different points in time for a given individual. Individual personality characteristics, (notably levels of Openness and Agreeableness), on their own can help, as can differences in inherited, modelled and learnt inclinations to social dominance and authoritarianism. But the same individual may self-define and self-invest in a number of different groups depending on the context, and when they do so the level of depersonalisation that occurs leads to differing extents of assumption of group behaviour as a template for individual behaviour. That group behaviour may lead to more or less prejudicial behaviour than the individual would manifest in isolation. The group in question may, for example, be characterised by compassion and tolerance. Or, it may be that the group the individual connects to sees itself as under some material or symbolic threat thus leading to prejudicial attitudes to out-group members. Group-level explanations certainly help understand prejudice, but on their own they cannot explain why, when and how intensely a given individual will self-define and self-invest in a given group out of the range of groups that may be available. For that we need to understand individual personality traits and their related inclinations, and the extent to which those traits then encourage depersonalisation.


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