Out of Character

The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us

Prejudice from Thin Air?

Can Anger Lead Anyone to be a Bigot?

As CNN just noted, Mel Gibson has "opened up" in a recent interview about his less than chivalrous behavior.  As most everyone knows, Mel has been caught a few times over the past years spewing racist and sexist epithets (and worse).  Unfortunately, such behavior is evidenced by many people.  But what makes the case of Mel interesting to us is the fact that he also has many, many people who know him well (e.g., Whoopi Goldberg, Jodie Foster) swear that he is not a racist or sexist.  Can these views be squared?

In his defense, Gibson states that he has "never treated anyone badly or in a discriminatory way based on their gender, race, religion, or sexuality."  He goes on to state that his rants have to be understood in terms of context -- he was angry and irrational at the time.  That begs the question:  can anger bring on bias from thin air?

Mel aside, this question is an interesting one, as it holds important consequences not only for our understanding of what can make people seemingly act out of character, but also for how emotional states might increase intergroup strife.  To answer it, we turned to a collaboration with Nilanjana Dasgupta at UMASS-Amherst -- one of the world's top experts on the plasticity of prejudice.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Given that emotional states often function to set expectations for what is likely to happen next, we reasoned that anger might adjust the mind's calculations to increase a sense of ensuing conflict.  The result would be that as an angry mind scans its environs, it automatically evaluates each person it sees with respect to his or her likelihood of being a source of conflict.  And given the historical fact of intergroup competition and conflict, people from outgroups (i.e., groups that differ from a person based on any social criterion like race, religion, ideology, etc.) are more likely to be a source of such problems than are ingroup brethren.

To test this view in its most basic form, we had research participants do two things.  First, we had them put on red or blue wristbands to mark them as having a certain kind of math ability (in truth, wristband colors were assigned randomly).  Then we had them complete a computer-based prejudice measure (the IAT) which required them to categorize pictures of other people who were wearing the aforementioned wristbands.  The IAT, through calculating the speed of responses that people make to these pictures interspersed with other positive and negative stimuli, provides an index of how the mind rapidly and spontaneously categorizes each individual it sees.

What we found was rather startling.  People who weren't angry didn't show any differences in how their minds' responded to the wristband wearers.  After all, red wristbands and math ability aren't really factors most people would care about when judging others.  However, the angry people evidenced a clear bias.  Their minds showed a strong aversion toward people who were wearing a different color wristband than they were.  In short, their minds developed a prejudice where none had existed a few moments before. 

So, while we are not out to excuse Mel Gibson (or anyone else), it does appear that changes in people's emotional states can lead even the most fair-minded among us to generate discriminatory thoughts at times.  Understanding this fact, though, is what can help to remediate any subsequent discriminatory actions.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

For more content, see www.outofcharacterbook.com

David DeSteno, Ph.D., directs the Social Emotions Group at Northeastern University.

more...

Subscribe to Out of Character

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?