Targets of discrimination are treated unfairly. That much is definitional. Getting discriminated against can narrow your opportunities and inflict psychological costs.

There is another problem with being the target of discrimination: If you speak up about it, you are doubly screwed.

For more than a decade, social scientists have been studying what happens to people who experience discrimination and then speak up about it. The results are not pretty. In an example of one of the laboratory studies of the phenomenon, participants read about an African American man who got a failing grade on a test. Some learned that there was a 0% chance that the person who graded the test had discriminated against Blacks; others were told that the chance of that was 50%, and still others were told that discrimination was certain (100% chance). Some of the people in each group were told that the test-taker said he got a failing grade because of discrimination; the others were told that he attributed his grade to other factors, such as the difficulty of the test or the quality of his answers.

People who read that the test-taker attributed his grade to discrimination totally trashed him. Compared to those who read that he attributed his grade to other factors, those who read about the discrimination charge were more likely to say that the man was a troublemaker and a complainer. They were also less likely to find him likeable or to think that he would make a good friend.

This next finding was even more amazing: The objective probability that the man actually had experienced discrimination did not matter. Even when it was totally certain that he failed because the grader practiced discrimination against African Americans, people still judged him more negatively when he claimed discrimination than when he did not.

Maybe people want others to take responsibility rather than blaming their outcomes on external factors. But pointing to external factors other than discrimination (for example, the difficulty of the test) does not bring forth such a cascade of negativity and name-calling as pointing to discrimination does.

These kinds of findings are not specific to studies of racial discrimination. The same thing happens to people who are targets of sex discrimination and who say so.

When a person is a target of discrimination, it is, I think, a good and noble thing to stick up for that person. Recent research, though, shows that there is a cost even to an observer of pointing out that another person was a target of discrimination. Again, people who observe another person getting discriminated against are viewed more harshly if they acknowledge that the target was treated in an unfair and discriminatory way than if they don’t acknowledge that. They, too, are seen as troublemakers and complainers who are too emotional and too sensitive.

When it is an observer who is pointing out the discrimination, it can’t be said that the observer should take personal responsibility for the bad outcome. The observer is not the one who experienced the bad outcome. The authors believe that what is really going on is that many people want to believe that the system is fair. If someone gets a better grade or a better job than someone else, it is because they earned it and deserved it. A claim of discrimination threatens that belief in a just system and a just world.

I have been thinking about research on the consequences of pointing to discrimination because of the bout of nastiness that erupted in the comments section of my previous post. Here are some examples:

“Maybe someone should start a shit on singles blog so you have something semi legitimate to bitch, moan and whine about! Man, is it clear why you folks are alone!”

“…at least on a pysch blog, someone ought to be offering the insight that folks who spend their time searching for slights and slobbering at a never ending pity party of make believe victims are likely to remain lonely and single. If that's, in fact, what you want, bravo! But, that does not make it wise or fulfilling...”

I can’t speak to the motivations of these particular people. In general, though, these kinds of comments are not random. There is a psychology behind them, and it does not bode well for those who care about curbing discrimination and who are willing to speak up when they experience or notice unfairness.

If you are interested in reading further, I have addressed this topic in the Singlism book as well as in posts such as these:

Is it bad to notice discrimination?

Tempted to point out an act of prejudice or discrimination? Here are some risks

When ‘you’re too sensitive’ means ‘stay in your place’

Why people cling to mythologies about marriage and coupling


Kaiser, C. R., & Miller, C. T. (2001). Stop complaining! The social costs of making attributions to discrimination. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 1523-1536.

Eliezer, D., & Major, B. (2011). It’s not your fault: The social costs of claiming discrimination on behalf of someone else. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 15, 487-502.

One Last Thing

Finally, here’s a link to a recrimination-free opportunity to suggest a singles-friendlier tax code: Thanks to April McCaffery (author of the blog, for this tip.

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