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Psychology Helps Explain Why People Are Prejudiced

How’s your head feeling? We ask because we assume you’ve probably banged it against a wall a few times in bewilderment at the prejudiced attitudes people continue to hold despite our best efforts to drive change.

We’re all collectively yelling why at our phones and computers when we read or hear about another person doing another terrible thing to someone because of their “personal beliefs.”

We haven’t yet figured out how to stop people from having terrible prejudices toward our fellow humans, but new research sheds light on the psychological roots of prejudice. Psychologists Michael E. Levin and his colleagues believe that prejudice stems partly from “psychological inflexibility.”

In a recently published paper, they define psychological inflexibility as “the tendency to act based on how one thinks or feels rather than what would be the most effective or meaningful in the moment.” Being psychologically inflexible means reacting rigidly to experiences based on personal thoughts, emotions and feelings rather than evidence and critical reflection on the issue.

Because it prevents people from fully considering other options besides what immediately pops into their heads, psychological inflexibility is associated with a variety of maladaptive outcomes, including depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and increased difficulty functioning in the face of chronic pain.

Levin and his colleagues suspected that people who are psychologically inflexible may also be more prone to holding prejudicial attitudes. To test this, they conducted an experiment involving 604 undergraduate students.

They first asked participants a series of questions to assess their attitudes toward several stigmatized groups: African Americans, LGTBQ people, women, people who are obese and people who use drugs and alcohol. For example, participants reacted to statements like “Women shouldn’t push themselves where they are not wanted” and “Severely obese people are usually untidy.”

They then asked participants to complete a scale designed to measure their levels of psychological inflexibility, or tendency to act on emotions instead of critically evaluating the situation. For instance, participants were asked to respond to statements such as, “My biases and prejudices affect how I interact with people from different backgrounds” and “When I evaluate someone negatively, I am able to recognize that this is just a reaction, not an objective fact.”

Levin and his colleagues found that people who are more psychologically flexible – those who consider evidence outside of their personal beliefs – were more likely to recognize their own prejudiced attitudes. People who were more psychological inflexibility – those who react based on personal beliefs and emotions – were more likely to hold biases toward stigmatized groups. In other words, their tendency to take their gut reactions as fact made them more susceptible to prejudiced thoughts.

Levin and his colleagues point out that prejudice cannot be explained by psychological inflexibility alone. Research has shown that the amount of empathy a person has and his or her (in)ability to see things from another person’s perspective also play a role in creating prejudiced attitudes.

The researchers suggest that programs which “encourage an alternative approach to relating to prejudiced thoughts and feelings in which individuals take an open, aware and compassionate stance toward their prejudice reactions and are taught to simply notice them for what they are…without giving into, agreeing with, acting on, judging or fighting with them” maybe useful in combating prejudiced attitudes.

Barriers for increasing empathy, like psychological inflexibility, requires us to craft messages that tap into the gut emotional reactions that produce biases if we are to reach and transform prejudiced audiences.

Journal of Applied Social Psychology 

Posted on June 23, 2016

Lauren Griffin
Lauren Griffin is the Director of External Research for frank and the Journal Manager for the Journal of Public Interest Communications (JPIC). She earned her PhD in Environmental Sociology from the University of Florida. Follow her on Twitter @lngriffin25