Why Social Stigma Matters

New research explains the link between Trump's victory and recent hate crimes.

Posted May 22, 2017

Richard Collins III was fatally stabbed over the weekend. His attacker, Sean Christopher Urbanski, has been charged with first-degree murder. Urbanski, who is white, is a member of a FaceBook group "Alt-Reich Nation," and the murder of Collins, who is black, is being investigated as a hate crime.

This attack on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park, comes at a time when white supremacist activity is rising on college campuses nationwide. Worries about increases in hate crimes since the 2016 election are not new. (I've written about them here before.) But new research sheds some light on the mechanisms linking Trump's victory to these heinous acts.

Here is how the researchers sum up their findings:

We show that a positive update in people's beliefs about Donald Trump's popularity increases their willingness to publicly express xenophobic views. ... By aggregating information about individuals' private views, elections can update people's perceptions about the share of people who support an opinion previously believed to be stigmatized. This may in turn change people's perceptions about the negative judgment they will face for expressing their opinion.

Source: Roxi/Flickr

In one experiment, run prior to the election, participants were offered a reward if they authorized the researchers to make a donation on their behalf to an anti-immigration organization. Those participants who expected to discuss their decision with another participant—that is, who expected it to be "public"—were more likely to decline than those who expected their decision to remain anonymous (and so "private"). This suggests that there is a social stigma attached to making the donation. 

A random subset of participants received information showing that Trump was extremely popular in their home states. This information led them to believe that xenophobic beliefs were more popular locally than they had thought. And it increased the likelihood of those in the "public" condition accepting the offer to make the donation on their behalf. The lack of perceived social stigma led to an increased willingness to express support for xenophobic views.

The researchers found the same pattern after the election. Once Trump, who ran on an openly xenophobic platform, had won the presidency, there was an increase in the willingness of those in the "public" condition to accept the offer to donate on their behalf. But the rate of donations in the "private" condition remained the same. Thus, the results of the election did not seem to increase xenophobia, but rather people's willingness to publicly avow it.

These results align with a general model, supported by previous studies, that suggests people are less willing to act on socially unacceptable desires when they think they will be disapproved of for doing so. But it adds to this model in showing how quickly our understanding of the social landscape can change, and how swiftly this can impact our behavior. There is serious cause for concern here. We are only four months into Trump's presidency, and there is every reason to believe that matters have taken a turn for the worse. The murder of Richard Collins III is the most recent on a growing list of terrible reminders.