I Study Prejudice

Do I, as a white man, have anything to say?

Posted Jun 12, 2019

Prejudice and discrimination have always been a big part of my life. When I was 6, I got beat up and called dirty Jew boy because they thought I looked Jewish. —Phil Zimbardo, inviting us to wonder if he would have felt better had he been beaten up for being Italian.

Nazi! Nazi!  —Local youths greeting me cheerfully outside of Toluca

A little while back, in the early days of the replication crisis in psychology and the hand-wringing over significance testing and p values, a graduate student approached four professors, asking them if they would present their views at a panel discussion. She had given this careful thought, and she approached faculty members she felt had relevant material and thoughts on the matter. This was shaping up to be a great moment for academic learning as lived experience: In-the-moment, spontaneous, honest, and without a syllabus. Then a female colleague announced she wanted to join the panel as a fifth member. This was wonderful news, but perhaps too late. We heard that the event was canceled. The four presenters all being white males did not sit well with—I am not sure with whom. I felt that a great learning opportunity had been missed, and I realized that my gender, in conjunction with the gender of my colleagues, had stimulated certain perceptions and judgments, that, from where I was sitting, felt discriminatory, damaging, and personally as well as professionally offensive. I did nothing besides grumble.

More recently, I participated with a presentation on implicit bias in a lunch event at a federal district court. The room was full of members of the legal community, from the State Attorney General to interns. There were many white males, but also a reassuring degree of gender and ethnic diversity. A colleague and I reviewed and discussed psychological data pertaining to prejudice and discrimination. We presented data from a sample of methods, but focused—as requested—on evidence obtained with the implicit association test (Krueger, 2019ab). We also reviewed some critical assessments of the method’s validity. These assessments were rather troubling, and we reported that even the advocates of the IAT no longer recommend that the test be used as a diagnostic instrument to uncover hidden racism within individuals. We then spent a considerable amount of time reviewing options for the legal community to improve the racial fairness of its procedures and outcomes. We particularly focused on social psychological elements of group deliberation and "shared cognition," which we think are most promising.

We received many questions, and the discussion was lively. Then, Boom! A long preface to a question I don’t even remember included the observation that the presentations were given by two white males. The question's text and tone made it clear that the intent of this rhetorical flare was dismissive, as if we had defended prejudice. Or does noting problems with an instrument measuring prejudice amount to the same thing? Do we want a society in which discrimination and disadvantage is studied only by those who experience it, perhaps on the view that only they truly understand? I am inclined to reject this idea. I would rather worry that in such a society, research findings would always struggle to find broad acceptance. As in the court and in the jury room, we need diversity among those who do the research. Indeed, I would be troubled if all students of prejudice were white males, but this is certainly not the case. To see if there is a troubling bias or imbalance, there is no substitute for looking at larger patterns—a point I emphasized in my presentation. Objecting to having two white males giving presentations is, on the face of it, a rhetorical and, as it were, a microaggressive maneuver. It is better to focus on the substance. This is as true in the courtroom as it is in the classroom.

So how did I stumble into the study of prejudice? It started in graduate school at the University of Oregon in the 1980s. My first study failed to show a gender stereotype effect I was confident I would find. I then proceeded to vary the strength of the stereotype and the strength of the person-specific (or ‘individuating’) information. Both matter (Krueger & Rothbart, 1988). At some point, individuating information overwhelms the stereotype, which is good news. Personal characteristics and behavior do affect impressions and judgments. And so it is with implicit bias. As we get to know people, we show less unfair, race-driven, implicit associations (Rubenstein, Jussim, & Stevens, 2018). Again, this is good news.

Over the years, I revisited gender stereotypes several times, but also studied race bias in the U.S.  (Krueger, 1996) and xenophobia in Germany (Aydin, Krueger, Frey, Kastenmüller, & Fischer, 2014). Other studies were designed to understand the effects of social categorization with minimal bases, as when groupings are created in the laboratory (DiDonato, Ullrich, & Krueger, 2011). Like many of my colleagues in social psychology, I have followed the lead of pioneers such as Gordon Allport or Henri Tajfel, who understood that prejudice and stereotyping are often intertwined with ordinary perceptual and cognitive processing. This is a very different view than the idea that prejudice and stereotyping are kinds of diseases that can be eradicated without changing anything else. For better or for worse, reality requires more flexible and nuanced strategies. Finding and refining them has kept us busy.

And why should I be engaged with this work as a white male? Is not anything I write tainted by privilege? This is a charge I can reject but cannot refute. To be refuted, it is much too nebulous. But I can say this: The German experience across the generations of my grandparents, my parents, and my own cohort offers a lot of material of the most dramatic type. Indeed, the landmark work on the authoritarian personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950), which began with the need to understand Anti-Semitism, turned out to have tremendous influence on the entire discipline. I work as a link in a chain of those who try to understand intergroup perception and behavior, with all the good and the bad and the human we can find in it.


Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

Aydin, N., Krueger, J. I., Frey, D., Kastenmüller, A., & Fischer, P. (2014). Social exclusion and xenophobia: Intolerant attitudes toward ethnic and religious minorities. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17, 371-387.

DiDonato, T. E., Ullrich, J., & Krueger, J. I. (2011). Social perception as induction and inference: An integrative model of intergroup differentiation, ingroup favoritism, and differential accuracy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 66-83.

Krueger, J. (1996). Personal beliefs and cultural stereotypes about racial characteristics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 536-548.

Krueger, J. I. (2019a). The decline of implicit bias. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/one-among-many/201906/the-decline-implicit-bias

Krueger, J. I. (2019b). Implications of implicit bias. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/one-among-many/201906/implications-implicit-bias

Krueger, J., & Rothbart, M. (1988). Use of categorical and individuating information in making inferences about personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 187-195.

Rubinstein, R. S., Jussim, L., & Stevens, S. T. (2018). Reliance on individuating information and stereotypes in implicit and explicit person perception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 75, 54-70.