Many sectors of American culture seem to be very engaged in efforts to promote racial equality and the celebration of diversity. On the other hand, clearly racism has not completely disappeared. Though we often hear about deep-rooted institutional and cultural forces that contribute to racism, it seems like we less often hear about the psychological motives and processes involved. In other words, psychologically, what does being racist do for a person? Below I provide a list of psychological motives that appear to contribute to racism.

1. Self-esteem

A number of published studies have demonstrated that people sometimes use prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behavior to boost their own self-esteem. When people's self-esteem is threatened, prejudicial actions such as racism appear to restore esteem (at least for some). This is obviously not a socially productive way to gain feelings of self-worth, but it appears to be one way that some people do it.

2. Positive Distinctiveness

Humans are social creatures. We like being part of a group and just as we like to see ourselves in a positive light (self-esteem), we like to perceive our groups as important or significant (positive distinctiveness). The problem is that one way this is done is by looking down on members of other groups. So if someone is noticeably different in some way, people sometimes hold negative attitudes about that individual because they belong to a different group. Classic and contemporary research in social psychology supports this idea as people tend to respond more favorably to others if they share a common group identity. This identity can be religious, political, social, and even racial. As America becomes increasingly diverse and our attitudes about defining groups become more inclusive, racism should continue to decrease. However, at least for some individuals, it seems like race is still an important group distinction and this distinction promotes negative attitudes towards people who belong to other racial groups.

3. Survival

Some scholars have argued that prejudice and racism in particular may be driven, in part, by basic survival motives. Humans evolved as a species that thrives in groups, and groups compete over scarce resources. And we do not have to look back at our ancestors to see this in practice. Even today, nations and groups within nations fight over access to limited resources (e.g., water, good land, ports, oil, etc). Classic social psychological research demonstrates that it is very easy to pit groups against one another if they are competing for a scarce resource. Remember the television show Survivor? Therefore, one cause of racism may be an innate proclivity towards group conflict in the service of resource acquisition. Of course, this is extremely problematic and maladaptive in the modern interconnected and mobile world. However, when humans evolved, our world was much different. Our brains evolved for that world, not the modern world we live in today. Therefore, we must strive to have belief systems that reject what may be a natural inclination to not trust or hold negative attitudes about people who look different than us. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a long road ahead of us if there is any truth to the assertion that prejudice may be rooted in basic survival motives.

4. Meaning

People are motivated to perceive life as meaningful. How would racism help people gain meaning though? People find meaning by investing in cultural belief systems or worldviews that give their lives some sense of order and certainty. Sadly, some people invest in worldviews that promote racism, beliefs about racial superiority. The good news is that the number of people who subscribe to racist worldviews appears to be decreasing. However, for those who do have racist worldviews, when their sense of meaning is threatened or the world feels uncertain, they will turn to their worldviews for guidance and comfort. 

You are reading

More Than Mortal

Taking Risks to Move the Culture Forward

An interview with Claire Lehmann, founder of an online magazine for free thought

On the Modern Self

An Interview with Will Storr

Criticism of Constructionism Expansion Pack 1

Extended thoughts on the state of the social sciences.