People overestimate groups they find threatening – when they “measure” others, bias creeps in

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Jacqueline Rifkin, University of Missouri-Kansas City and Rebecca Ponce de Leon, Columbia University

(THE CONVERSATION) Places are not only physical, but also social.

For example, around the North Carolina campus where we met, we knew certain bars based on the students who frequented them – “Duke bars” versus “UNC bars”. Or, when we travel, we may try to guess if most of a restaurant’s customers are tourists – and if so, go somewhere else.


This common way of thinking about our surroundings seemed pretty reasonable to us until a few years ago when we noticed something that got us thinking.

We overheard one of our alma maters, the University of Pennsylvania, pejoratively called “Jewish University of Pennsylvania,” and one of our hometowns, Decatur, Georgia, derogatorily called “Dyke-atur “. These labels are not only deeply offensive… they are also false. None of these places are actually predominantly Jewish or gay. And yet, some people seem to believe that these groups dominate these spaces.

Where do these beliefs come from and why do people make these inaccurate judgments? Perhaps more importantly, why might this matter?

As social psychologists who explore how intergroup dynamics affect organizational and consumer phenomena, we have been fascinated by these questions. Four years ago, we set out to answer them.

Across six studies, we found that people commonly exaggerate the presence of certain groups – including ethnic and sexual minorities – simply because they are perceived as ideologically threatening. Psychologists call this feeling – that groups have different values ​​and worldviews from the mainstream, thus jeopardizing the status quo – “symbolic threat”.

Symbolic threats weigh heavily

We started by looking at survey data from the year 2000 that examined the beliefs of 987 non-Black Americans about Black people. We found that the more a survey respondent believed Black people had different values ​​or a distinct way of life from their own, the more they believed the Black population would increase over time.

We followed this up with several experiments, examining not only beliefs about black people, but also about other minority groups, including gay people and immigrants. We asked participants to imagine everyday social spaces, including patrons of a bar or residents of a neighborhood.

In some studies, we showed participants demographic information about a small portion of a company’s employees and asked them to guess the demographics of the whole company. In other studies, we have described a group of people gathering in a place and asked participants whether they thought the place was related in any way to these people – for example, a ” Duke bar” or a “UNC bar”.

Our volunteers were much more likely to overestimate groups that they found symbolically threatening, such as gay people or immigrants, compared to groups that did not seem so threatening, such as those with green eyes.

Specifically, triggering a sense of value conflict made the subjects in our study both more likely to perceive these groups as more populated in a place and to believe that group and place are somehow connected. or another.

This pattern emerged regardless of participant demographics or political stances and even when we used completely fictional groups, such as a made-up organization called “PDL” with a fake logo. Our results suggest that these types of judgments are universal and may be related to how people treat their environment.

Prevention is better than cure

Humans have evolved a variety of strategies to protect themselves from harm. One is to be hypervigilant to potential threats. According to what psychologists call “error handling theory,” people tend to err on the side of caution by exaggerating potential threats in their environment. When camping in the woods, for example, it’s safer to mistakenly assume a shadow is a large bear than to mistakenly assume the shadow is harmless.

While previous work has explored these kinds of snap judgments in potentially dangerous environments, our research finds that people give in to these same biases in everyday social spaces.

The tendency to exaggerate potential threats has helped our species navigate new environments and stay safe. But it can be concerning when people make those same judgments about others simply because they seem to think and live differently from them. Groups that differ from the mainstream are likely seen as more invasive than they actually are, or growing in number. This provides a sad irony: although these groups are often subjugated and disempowered, they can be seen as quite the opposite – an ever-growing threat that must be suppressed.

This kind of rhetoric has unfortunately been in the spotlight lately. For example, conservative figures like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have recently given credence to sectarian conspiracies like the “great replacement” theory, which posits that minority groups intentionally increase in order to replace and crowd out “traditional” Americans. . This rhetoric apparently motivated the white gunman accused of killing 10 black Americans in Buffalo in May 2022.

Break free from bias

Previous work in psychology suggests that simply being aware of one’s own biases is the first step towards reducing their influence. Since the beginning of this project, we have even noticed our own tendency to jump to conclusions about the groups around us and their omnipresence.

If you notice yourself doing the same thing, that doesn’t make you a bad person. But we encourage you to take advantage of these times to slow down and reconsider your instincts. While this way of thinking can help you find the best sports bar to cheer on your team, categorizing venues based on the people in them can have serious ramifications if left unchecked.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/people-overestimate-groups-they-find-keeping-when-sizing-up-others-bias-sneaks-in-184357.

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