Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

Self-Esteem and Social Identity

Returning to the topic of prejudice, Tajfel hypothesized that ingroup biases arise from similar dynamics concerning the need for self-esteem. In the view of Tajfel and his colleagues, people maintain their self-esteem in part by identifying with groups and believing that the groups they belong to are better than other groups (Tajfel, 1981; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Consequently, even experimentally created minimal groups give people a chance to bolster their self-esteem through ingroup biases. Tajfel's theory, known as "social identity theory," is supported by both laboratory and field studies. For example, research shows that after university athletic teams win a game, students are more likely to (1) wear clothes that identify the school, and (2) use the word "we" when describing the game's outcome, especially if their self-esteem has recently been challenged by a personal failure (Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker, Freeman, & Sloan, 1976). In addition, a review of 34 separate studies found that people who are high in self-esteem -- and who therefore have the most to lose if their self-esteem is undercut -- exhibit more ingroup bias than do people low in self-esteem (Aberson, Healy, & Romero, 2000).

Research also indicates that when people experience a drop in self-esteem, they become more likely to express prejudice. This tendency was demonstrated in an experiment that altered students' self-esteem by giving them bogus feedback after an intelligence test (Fein & Spencer, 1997). On a random basis, half the students were told they scored in the top 10% for their university, and half were told that they scored below average. Then, in what appeared to be an unrelated study, students were asked to evaluate a job candidate who was presented as either Jewish or Italian. The results showed that students who suffered a blow to their self-esteem later evaluated the candidate more negatively when she seemed Jewish than when she seemed Italian, whereas no difference was found among students who were given positive feedback about their intelligence. Moreover, students who received negative feedback about their intelligence showed a rebound in self-esteem after devaluing the Jewish candidate; that is, by putting down the Jewish candidate, they increased their self-esteem.

An unfortunate implication of this research is that for some people, prejudice represents a way of maintaining their self-esteem. At the same time, the link between prejudice and self-esteem suggests a hopeful message: it may be possible to reduce prejudice with something as simple as a boost in self-esteem. Fein and Spencer (1997) found this to be the case in a follow-up experiment similar to the one above. In the second experiment, anti-Jewish prejudice was eliminated after students increased their self-esteem by writing a few paragraphs about something they valued. Thus, at least one effective means of decreasing prejudice may be to address the sources of insecurity that underlie it.

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