Prejudice is just bigotry that arises from flawed ideology, right? Not so, say the authors of a new paper.
They contend prejudice stems from a deeper psychological need and it is associated with a particular way of thinking. People who aren't comfortable with ambiguity and want to make quick and firm decisions are also prone to making generalizations about others. People who are prejudiced feel a much stronger need to make quick and firm judgments and decisions in order to reduce ambiguity.
And, they argue, it's virtually impossible to change this basic way that people think.
"Of course, everyone has to make decisions, but some people really hate uncertainty and therefore quickly rely on the most obvious information, often the first information they come across, to reduce it" says co-author Arne Roets of Ghent University in Belgium. That's also why they favor authorities and social norms which make it easier to make decisions. Then, once they've made up their mind, they stick to it. "If you provide information that contradicts their decision, they just ignore it."
So people who prefer big government and centralized decision-making are more likely to be prejudiced? Not necessarily, though people who are concerned about ambiguity are drawn to more rules, often unconsciously. "When we meet someone, we immediately see that person as being male or female, young or old, black or white, without really being aware of this categorization," Roets says. "Social categories are useful to reduce complexity, but the problem is that we also assign some properties to these categories. This can lead to prejudice and stereotyping."
People who need to make quick judgments will judge a new person based on what they already believe about their category. "The easiest and fastest way to judge is to say, for example, ok, this person is a black man. If you just use your ideas about what black men are generally like, that's an easy way to have an opinion of that person," Roets says. "You say, 'he's part of this group, so he's probably like this.'"
But there is some good news, they say; it's possible to use this way of thinking to reduce people's prejudice. If people who need quick answers meet people from other groups and like them personally, they are likely to use this positive experience to form their views of the whole group. "This is very much about salient positive information taking away the aversion, anxiety, and fear of the unknown," Roets says.
Their conclusions suggest that the fundamental source of prejudice is not ideology, but rather a basic human need and way of thinking. "It really makes us think differently about how people become prejudiced or why people are prejudiced," Roets says. "To reduce prejudice, we first have to acknowledge that it often satisfies some basic need to have quick answers and stable knowledge people rely on to make sense of the world."
So give bigots a chance? We wouldn't go that far.
Citation: Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel, 'Allport’s Prejudiced Personality Today: Need for Closure as the Motivated Cognitive Basis of Prejudice', Current Directions in Psychological Science, December 2011; vol. 20, 6: pp. 349-354 doi: 10.1177/0963721411424894