We’ve all heard open expressions of prejudice and bias. Sometimes these expressions are shocking not simply for their content but for the communicator’s willingness to be personally associated with such negativity. Don’t we all “get” the message that expressions of bigotry are unacceptable in modern (Western) society?

We sure do. In fact, over the last few decades, modern expressions of prejudice (see Hodson, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2004) have become much more indirect and subtle, often “rationalized” along grounds that have nothing to do with group membership (e.g., reference to sacred values held by the ingroup). As a result, instead of saying “I don’t like Group X” or “I hate group Y”, those with negative feelings can find more socially acceptable cover by hiding behind expressions such as “I feel torn about Group X”. After all, such expressions can connote a sense of nuance and complex thinking to an audience, which is socially valued.

In a recent series of studies, my PhD student Mark Hoffarth and I examined reports of subjective ambivalence toward gay people, that is, the extent to which one feels conflicted or mixed in attitudes toward gay men and lesbians (Hoffarth & Hodson, in press). In both studies these claims were examined among heterosexual undergraduates (who generally recognize that being “anti-gay” is becoming increasingly unacceptable).

In Study 1, those scoring higher in subjective ambivalence toward gays scored higher in: (a) negativity toward gays; (b) ideologies such as authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism; and (c) disgust sensitivity (and inter-group disgust sensitivity). They also scored lower in support for gay rights (r = -.42, p < .001), which involves protection from hate-crimes, housing and job discrimination, and includes rights for marriage equality. Perhaps most interestingly, subjective ambivalence was not associated with more positive attitudes toward gay people (as one might expect if taking these people at face value that their feelings reflect both positive and negative reactions).

In Study 2, we exposed heterosexuals to a fictitious news story about a victim of gay bullying. For half of the participants, this account was characterized as “boys just being boys” (i.e., socially acceptable); for the other half, this account was described as being socially unacceptable (i.e., more than boys simply being boys). Of central interest were the factors that predicted opposition to this bullying incident. Supporting Study 1, those higher in subjective ambivalence were less opposed to the bullying incident. Moreover, this effect was fully explained by their lower levels of empathy toward gay people. The experimental manipulation also exerted an indirect effect: those exposed to this incident framed as “boys will be boys” reported lower collective guilt, which itself predicted less opposition to the bullying. Of interest, the effects of subjective ambivalence and “boys will be boys” framing predicted less opposition to gay bullying after statistically controlling for their initial (i.e., pre-experimental) attitudes toward gay people.

One take-home message is that feeling subjectively ambivalent (i.e., conflicted, torn, mixed) toward gay people is associated with more negative (and not positive) attitudes toward gays, and is associated with greater resistance to gay rights and protection from bullying and harassment. Another message is that media framing of societal norms can clearly impact our sense of collective responsibility for injustices.

To be clear, these results do NOT mean that all claims of feeling torn toward a group are evidence of bias. However, such statements can be associated with underlying negativity and resistance to equality, and should thus serve as a flag that the communicator might not feel as torn as they claim on the surface.

References and Suggested Readings:

Previous blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/without-prejudice/201307/dehumanizing-others-is-no-joke (on how assertions that “jokes are just jokes” can actually exacerbate prejudice).

Hodson, G., Dovidio, J.F., & Gaertner, S.L. (2004).  The aversive form of racism.  In J.L. Lau (Ed.), The psychology of prejudice and discrimination (Vol 1., pp. 119-135). Westport, CT: Praeger Press.

Hodson, G., & Hewstone, M. (Eds.) (2013). Advances in intergroup contact. London, UK: Psychology Press. Paperback: 978-1-84872-114-2; Hardback: 978-1-84872-054-1

Hoffarth, M.R., & Hodson, G. (in press). Is subjective ambivalence toward gays a modern form of bias? Personality and Individual Differences. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.05.014

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