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Racists Believe They Are Well Within the Norm

New research from Australia finds racists mistakenly tend to believe they’re less prejudiced than their neighbors.
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Racists take comfort in an imagined consensus. That’s the implication of a new Australian study, which suggests a possible approach to breaking through bigoted beliefs.

The newly published research, which surveyed attitudes towards that nation’s Aboriginal population, found prejudiced people are far more likely than their non-prejudiced neighbors to believe their fellow Australians agree with their attitudes.

Furthermore, they tend to think the attitudes of their friends and colleagues toward the minority group is even more negative than their own — a false belief that allows them to view themselves as safely within the boundaries of community norms.

Susan Watt and Chris Larken of the University of New England (which is located, confusingly enough, in the Australian state of New South Wales), report on their findings in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Building on a 2008 study by psychologist Anne Pedersen, they conducted a survey of 135 Sydney residents, ranging in age from 19 to 86. The education level of the participants was relatively high, with more than 36 percent holding a college degree compared to 18 percent of the population as a whole.

Study participants completed an Attitudes Toward Indigenous Australians survey, in which they rated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with such statements as “Aboriginal people are too vocal and loud about their rights.” Nearly 70 percent scored below the neutral midpoint of the scale, indicating an overall positive attitude toward Aboriginal people.

They then rated how their friends, families and colleagues would answer those same questions, and how they perceived portrayals of Aboriginal Australians in the media. Finally, they were asked what percentage of Australians they thought would agree with their views.

Like Pedersen, Watt and Larken found that “prejudiced people perceived more consensus for their attitudes toward Aboriginal Australians than did non-prejudiced people.” Specifically, those exhibiting a racial bias estimated that 70.9 percent of their fellow countrymen agreed with their attitude. Non-prejudiced people estimated that only 48.7 percent of Australians shared their beliefs.

“The great majority of participants in the present study rated others as more negative toward Aboriginal Australians than themselves, and this was consistent across all measures of others’ attitudes,” they write. “The results suggest that people are motivated to believe that they are less prejudiced than others in their attitudes toward Aboriginal Australians. If they have negative attitudes, others are considered to have even more negative attitudes.”

So the surveyed Sydney residents perceived themselves — often wrongly — as more open-minded than their neighbors. Watt and Larkin view this finding as promising. If prejudiced people are presented with “clear normative information” telling them the community consensus is much different than what they perceive it to be, this “may influence them to shift their attitudes,” they write.

Perhaps. Or perhaps they simply will refuse to believe the information.

Since conducting this research, “we have replicated several times the finding of a strong positive correlation between prejudice and overestimates of consensus,” Watt reported. And the effect is not limited to Australia: Her most recent study, measuring Austrian students’ attitudes toward African immigrants, similarly found “a strong positive relation between prejudice and overestimates of others’ prejudice.”

As Watt and Larkin note in their paper, “the illusion of strong support among prejudiced people can be expected not only to make them more willing to act on their views, but also more forthright in expressing their opinions, less prepared to compromise, and less likely to modify their attitude.” Perhaps the next line of research should look at possible ways that illusion could be broken.