Prejudice Has Unexpected Effect When People Evaluate Minorities

August 14, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's not surprising that high-prejudice people think differently than others when they're asked toevaluate statements made by Blacks or homosexuals.

But new research suggests that the difference between high-and low-prejudice people isn't what common wisdom would dictate. In fact, low-prejudice people may sometimes be more critical than high-prejudice people of statements made by minority group members.

Studies showed that low-prejudice people scrutinized statements made by Blacks or homosexuals more closely thandid others -- and because of this, were more likely than high-prejudice individuals to find flaws in any weak arguments.(Prejudice levels were measured with a standardized test.)

People high in prejudice seemed to simply ignore statements made by minority group members, and didn't notice the strength or weakness of their arguments, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

"High-prejudice people in our studies simply ignored the content of messages from Blacks and homosexuals," Petty said. "They tuned the messages out so they didn't realize how good or bad it was."

"Ironically, it was the low-prejudice people who noticed when minority group members said something foolish. However, low-prejudice people were also the ones who noticed when Blacks or homosexuals said something particularly good."

Petty conducted the research with Monique Fleming, a graduate student at Ohio State, and Paul White of the University of Utah. They presented their findings August 14 in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The research will also be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In one study, white undergraduates at Ohio State were given a questionnaire that measured how prejudiced they were. The 315 who scored highest and lowest on the measure then participated in the remainder of the study.

The participants read an editorial supposedly written by either a white or African-American author. (The students read a biography of the author, which included a photograph of him, before reading the editorial.) The editorial, which argued in favor of senior comprehensive exams, included either four strong, compelling arguments in favor of the exams, or four weak arguments. (The arguments were pre-tested with other students and shown to be strong or weak.)

The participants then completed measures that examined their attitudes toward senior comprehensive exams and toward the editorial itself.

Results showed that low-prejudice students were more influenced by the quality of the arguments when the source was Black than when the source was white. This was because the low-prejudice students scrutinized the message more whenit was presented by a Black source than a White source.

The effects were just the opposite with high-prejudice individuals: they were more influenced by argument quality when the source was white because they gave more scrutiny to arguments from whites.

A similar study was conducted with 48 other students, all of whom identified themselves as heterosexual. The procedure was the same, except that writers of the editorial were identified as either homosexuals or heterosexuals. The results were similar, in that low-prejudice participants gave more scrutiny to arguments made by homosexuals and were more influenced by argument quality with homosexual writers.

Why do low-prejudice people pay more attention to statements by stigmatized groups, such as Blacks and homosexuals' Petty said they may be performing a watchdog role. Low-prejudice people are aware that minorities are often viewed negatively and face discrimination. They may be closely scrutinizing their statements in order to guard against discrimination either on their own part or on the part of others, he said.

"Low-prejudice people are being careful in order to ensure that their own responses -- or the responses of others -- are not prejudiced." On the other hand, high-prejudice people don't care if they have a prejudiced response, so they aren't motivated to pay close attention, according to Petty.

Petty said the results suggest that, in the college population at least, there's been a change in the nature of prejudice. While it was acceptable at one time to be openly prejudiced and negative toward certain minority groups, such an attitude is usually rejected today. Instead, prejudiced people ignore the groups they don't like. "It's been an evolution from just being negative toward certain groups to being dismissive as a way of showing prejudice," Petty said.

However, college students are generally less prejudiced than the population at large, Petty said. If this study had been done with a population outside of college, it is possible that there would have been more high-prejudice people who were overtly negative, rather than just dismissive.

Petty said the results are somewhat discouraging when appliedto race relations. "If prejudiced people are dismissive, it's difficult to change their minds. If they're not paying attention, it doesn't matter how good your arguments are."

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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