Prejudice from thin air

February 09, 2004

BOSTON, Mass. - You may be more prejudiced than you think, especially if you're angry and approached by someone of a different race, religion or creed.

A study slated for publication in the Spring 2004 edition of Psychological Science (the flagship Journal of the American Psychological Society) by psychology professors David DeSteno and Nilanjana Dasgupta from Northeastern University and UMass Amherst respectively, reveals that the experience of anger causes automatic, immediate prejudices against those who are not a part of one's social group. The study has particular relevance for those in professions requiring quick assessment and action, especially for those in jobs like law enforcement and security. Study participants included New York City residents and college undergraduates who were assigned to novel groups - either as individuals who tend to "over estimate" or "under estimate" numerical judgments - based on a bogus personality test they believed to be valid. They were then led to experience one of three emotional states -- anger, sadness, or neutrality. Once the emotions had been induced, participants completed rapid categorizations of faces of people in their in-groups or out-groups -- people who were both like them and unlike them with respect to the created estimator groups -- that were preceded by quickly displayed words that were either positive or negative in tone. These rapid response tasks provide a window into the spontaneous and non-conscious evaluations that individuals attached to the social groups.

As expected, among sad and neutral participants, no automatic bias against out-group members emerged. However, the presence of anger caused the mind to shift its perceptions and evaluate out-group members negatively, event though they had never encountered this group before. This finding provides, for the first time, compelling evidence showing that specific emotional states influence basic, automatic processes in the brain that are tied to one of the central challenges of social living: inter-group interaction.

DeSteno explains the study by use of an example. "Much as the experience of fear leads individuals to adaptive behaviors to avoid dangers (e.g., quickly recoiling from a snake in one's path), the experience of anger, due its association with preparation for conflict, automatically shifts individuals' rapid appraisals of social groups outside of their awareness or control," he says. "When conflict is likely, different equals bad, and the brain prepares to shape our behavior accordingly."

These findings are of import not only for psychological science, but for practical considerations as well. Dasgupta says that such non-conscious prejudices have been shown to affect behavior. "The findings hold important implications by suggesting that anger may increase the likelihood of aggressive or derogatory behaviors in situations requiring rapid judgments (e.g., a police officer or soldier judging an approaching member of an unfamiliar group as representing a threat and acting accordingly)," she says. "It is useful to note that these automatic prejudices can be overcome by exerting time and effort to consider judgments of social groups, but these are luxuries that individuals often do not have."
-end-
For a complete copy of the study, contact Brylee Maxfield at b.maxfield@neu.edu or (617) 373-2802.

Northeastern University, located in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts, is a world leader in cooperative education and recognized for its expert faculty and first-rate academic and research facilities. Through co-op, Northeastern undergraduates alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, giving them nearly two years of professional experience upon graduation. The majority of Northeastern graduates receive a job offer from a co-op employer. Cited for excellence two years running by U.S. News & World Report, Northeastern was named a top college in the northeast by the Princeton Review 2003/04. In addition, Northeastern's career services was awarded top honors by Kaplan Newsweek's "Unofficial Insiders Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges and Universities," 2003 edition. For more information, please visit http://www.northeastern.edu.

Northeastern University

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