A new study has explained why people are more likely to show bias against people who are different, when they are feeling badly about themselves.
“This is one of the oldest accounts of why people stereotype and have prejudice: It makes us feel better about ourselves,” said Jeffrey Sherman of the University of California, Davis, who co-author the study with Thomas Allen.
“When we feel bad about ourselves, we can denigrate other people, and that makes us feel better about ourselves,” he said.
Sherman and Allen used the Implicit Association Test (IAT)—a task designed to assess people’s automatic reactions to words and/or images—to investigate this claim.
In order to reveal people’s implicit prejudice, participants are asked to watch a computer monitor while a series of positive words, negative words, and pictures of black or white faces appear.
In the first part of the test, participants are asked to push the “E” key for either black faces or negative words and the “I” key for white faces or positive words.
For the second task, the groupings are reversed—participants are now supposed to associate positive words with black faces and negative words with white faces.
Determining prejudice in the IAT is pretty straightforward: If participants have negative associations with black people, they should find the second task more difficult. This should be especially true when people feel bad about themselves.
In their experiment, Sherman and Allen asked participants to take a very difficult 12-question test that requires creative thinking. No one got more than two items correct.
About half of the participants were given their test results and told that the average score was nine, to make them would feel bad about themselves.
The other half were told that their tests would be graded later. All of the participants then completed the IAT and, as expected, those who were feeling bad about their test performance showed more evidence of implicit prejudice.
The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.