Situational factors and prejudice

We have spent a good deal of time and energy thinking about how prejudice might be mediated by factors working at the level of the individual (dispositional factors) but what do we know that suggests that prejudice must also be mediated by factors outside of our own personalities, i.e. the social situation giving rise to prejudice?

Think about Sherif (1954) Robber’s Cave

  1. When did prejudice arise in this study?
  2. When did it escalate?
  3. How does this study demonstrate the levels of prejudice are mediated by the social situation?
  4. Is there anything about this study that might lead us to think that the prejudice observed in these boys was anything to do with upbringing rather than the situation
  5. If you could have improved this study in some way, to help solve the “situation/personality problem”, what would you have done?

Think about Hovland and Sears (1940)

  1. What was the mediating factor that appeared to be controlling levels of prejudice seen in this study?
  2. Why can we not be sure whether this factors was actually controlling the levels of prejudice?

Think about Allport and his idea of the “demagogue”

  1. What is a demagogue?
  2. How does this concept add to the personality/situation debate on prejudice?
  3. What are the necessary factors for those high on RWA and SDO to start demonstrating explicit signs of discrimination?
  4. When does Duckitt (2005) argue that demagogues are most effective in eliciting discriminatory behaviour in APs?

What else can you think of?

  1. Are there any studies that suggest that prejudice/discrimination can be elicited quite readily in anyone?
  2. Who created these studies where people demonstrated discrimination to outgroup members simply because they were not in the same group as them?
  3. Are there any problems with these studies?
  4. Have they been replicated? Think about cross cultural studies that demonstrate that more collectivist cultures are less likely to behave in a discriminatory manner simply due to arbitrary differences?

Real life examples

  1. Think about Rwanda, think about Germany, around the time of the rise of Hitler, think about the UK, around the time of the rise of UKIP. What do all of these situations have in common? All of these situations were characterised by relatively sudden and wide-spread rises in levels of apparent hatred and discrimination that are hard to explain by looking at personality theories alone.
  2. What factors do they suggest are important in determining eras characterised by apparent hatred and discrimination?
  3. What role do the government and the press play in all of this?

A “diathesis-stress” model of Prejudice

However, it is possibly more helpful to think about how certain personality types, are resistant to prejudice? What circumstances help to foster personalities that remain well integrated, well-adjusted and strong in the face of threats or challenges to identity or competition for resources/power or status?
In summary, it may be best to think about a “diathesis-stress” model of prejudice, whereby some people have certain personality traits, (established as a way of managing life, given the world-view that they maintain) that create a “diathesis” and predispose them to becoming discriminatory under certain circumstances. If the social situation presents these circumstances (stress), then the prejudice/discrimination will follow.

Not everyone in Rwanda, Germany or currently in the UK has allowed themselves to become prejudiced or discriminatory even though social norms seem to have shifted, allowing explicit racism to become less socially undesirable that it has been in years. In fact many collective people power movements in the UK are fighting prejudice together right now, and have the needs of people, thousands of miles away, from very different walks of life, uppermost in their thoughts.

Why is this? Should this ‘world view’ be fostered or seen as aberrant? Is this way of conducting oneself truly altruistic or does it serve some other purpose with regard to self and group esteem? Are the “left” taking on “right” and allowing themselves to behave in as prejudicial manner as the right?

Other situational factors that affect levels of prejudice

Social norms:

Or when it is or isn’t okay to be racist, sexist, homophobic etc…

Minard (1952) investigated how social norms influence prejudice and discrimination. The behaviour of black and white miners in a town in the southern United States was observed, both above and below ground.

Results: Below ground, where the social norm was friendly behaviour towards work colleagues, 80 of the white miners were friendly towards the black miners. Above ground, where the social norm was prejudiced behaviour by whites to blacks, this dropped to 20.

Conclusion: The white miners were conforming to different norms above and below ground. Whether or not prejudice is shown depends on the social context within which behaviour takes place.

Pettigrew (1959) also investigated the role of conformity in prejudice. He investigated the idea that people who tended to be more conformist would also be more prejudiced, and found this to be true of white South African students. Similarly, he accounted for the higher levels of prejudice against black people in the southern United States than in the north in terms of the greater social acceptability of this kind of prejudice in the south.

A study by Rogers and Frantz (1962) found that immigrants to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) became more prejudiced the longer they had been in the country. They gradually conformed more to the prevailing cultural norm of prejudice against the black population.

Interventions to reduce prejudice

If researchers can find a way of reducing prejudice through manipulating social circumstances than these can be taken as an indication of the importance of social situation in mediating prejudice.

Your independent research task:

  • Make a poster to illustrate different psychological techniques that have been used successfully or otherwise to reduce prejudice in society
  • Your poster must include specific research studies that can be used as evidence.
  • It should also consider mediating factors which influence whether the  interventions work or not
  • It should consider possible problems with the interventions and/or the studies that support them

In conclusion, 

Cooper and Whitney (2009) suggest that strong and specific prejudices are often more likely to be linked to situational factors whereas weaker and more generalised prejudice may stem from dispositional or personality factors.

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