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The Mental Roots of Racial Prejudice

Italian researchers find social conservatives tend to attribute more negative qualities to members of a minority group.
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A recent poll finding nearly half of Mississippi Republicans disapprove of interracial marriage is a disturbing reminder of the continuing prejudice faced by minority groups in 21st-century America. Why is such bias seemingly immune to eradication, and why does it seem to be more prevalent among social conservatives?

A fascinating new study from Italy suggests at least part of the answer can be traced to the way we process information and form political attitudes. Psychologists Luigi Castelli and Luciana Carraro of the University of Padua present evidence that our perception of minority groups is often distorted due to inaccurate recall of information.

This phenomenon, they add, is more pronounced among social conservatives.

Presented with a series of facts about members of two groups, “Conservatives developed more negative impressions towards the minority group," which were reinforced by "consistent memory biases," they report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Strikingly, the researchers found this effect without making reference to race, religion or sexual orientation. All it needs to be activated, it seems, is the presence of a larger group and a smaller one.

In their first experiment, 234 students read a series of 39 sentences, each of which described an action of some sort. The person engaging in this behavior was identified as either a member of Group A or Group B.

Twenty-seven of the sentences described positive behavior (Jim gives up his seat on the bus to an elderly woman), while 12 described negative behavior (James often tells many lies).

Twenty-six of the sentences referred to someone from Group A, while only 13 referred to a member of Group B. The ratio between positive and negative behavior was the same for each group: 18 positive and 8 negative for Group A, 9 positive and 4 negative for Group B.

After reading the sentences, participants evaluated the two groups, rating the applicability of such adjectives as “intelligent,” “sociable” and “lazy.” They were then provided with all the sentences and asked to estimate how many of the described actions were performed by members of each group, and how many of each group’s actions were negative.

Finally, the students’ level of social conservativism was measured by having them give their views on five hot-button topics, including immigration and gay marriage.

The researchers found “an illusory association between Group B and negative behaviors.” Specifically, “the perceived proportion of negative behaviors” was significantly higher for Group B, although in fact the two groups were identical in this regard.

“Increased levels of social conservativism were associated with more negative evaluations of Group B as compared to Group A,” the researchers add. “The illusory correlation between Group B and negativity was accentuated among conservatives.”

The researchers then performed the experiment a second time, with one change: The proportions were reversed, so that there were more negative than positive behaviors. In a mirror image of the first test, the perceived results were once again skewed, with participants this time attributing more positive behaviors to members of Group B.

So in both cases, the minority group was linked in people’s minds with the less-frequently mentioned behavior. But in the second experiment, social conservatives were no more likely than anyone else to misremember who did what.

To summarize:  Social conservatives were more likely than others to misattribute responsibility for specific behaviors, but only when doing so resulted in a negative view of the minority group. This memory trick apparently resulted in false evidence building up in their minds, reinforcing their hostility.

As Castelli and Carraro note, these results most likely reflect the fact conservatives are more highly attuned to possible threats (a phenomenon described in earlier research). While this on-one’s-guard attitude clearly plays a valuable societal function, their study suggests it sometimes manifests in destructive ways, hardening into prejudice against minority group members.

This sort of brain wiring may be impossible to unravel, but at the very least, we can be aware of this tendency and guard against it. It’s a dangerous world, but this study strongly suggests some of those perceived threats exist only in our own minds.

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