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When a Group Seems Threatening It May Feel Like “They’re Everywhere!”

When a group seems threatening, they are perceived to be more numerous.

Key points

  • Fear is a primary reason people believe (or even inadvertently create) misinformation and disinformation.
  • Recent research suggests that supposedly threatening groups of people are perceived to be more numerous than they are.
  • This exaggeration occurs in contexts from sports rivalries to more societally damaging contexts involving, say, race or sexual orientation.
GDJ/Pixabay
When we perceive a group as threatening, we think there are more of them. And no, we’re not talking about zombies!
Source: GDJ/Pixabay

The headline of this piece, “They’re everywhere!” is in quotes because we pulled it from the actual title of a recently published research article by Rebecca Ponce de Leon and colleagues.

The research article title evoked zombies for us, but it could easily have brought to mind distracted drivers on our commute or even cockroaches in kitchens.

If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to have a cockroach infestation, even a small one (if there is such a thing), then you know how easy it is to perceive that there are millions of these disease-ridden pests living in your walls. There’s even a saying for it: For every cockroach you see, there are ten you don’t see. This kind of exaggerated thinking is baked into how we think about threatening things.

Not Just Zombies

It turns out that this is a common bias in the face of a perceived threat, as evidenced by Ponce de Leon and colleagues’ study. “Place is not just physical, but social,” they write as justification for their examination of symbolic threat, which they define as “the belief that a group violates one’s values and worldviews.”

As a way of explanation, they offer the example of a patron entering a sports bar for the first time who might check out the jerseys of other patrons to ascertain the popular team. Based on their work, we could surmise that a fan of the New York Yankees could walk into a sports bar, spot several New York Mets jerseys, and feel threatened by this worldview violation.

This would result in overestimating how many Mets fans are actually bellying up to the bar. This phenomenon is essentially misinformation served up by our biased brains!

And Not Just Sports Fans, Either

Of course, the real danger is not among baseball fans. These researchers also offer examples of often-marginalized groups – religious groups, racial groups, sexual minorities, and gender minorities – who are perceived to be more numerous than they are by people who hold negative views of these groups. Why does this bias occur?

The researchers speculate that it is adaptive to overestimate the numbers of threatening groups. That is, if the group is truly threatening, then it can be dangerous to underestimate their numbers. This exaggeration bias might be somewhat acceptable when it involves sports fans but can contribute to dangerous discrimination when it is based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship, or several other social categories.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments that demonstrated this precarious effect. For example, in one study, Ponce de Leon and colleagues told participants that 100 of 500 company employees had responded to a survey.

Half of the participants were told that the survey asked if participants were gay, a potentially threatening identity, then were told that 30 of 100 employees said they were. Half were told that the survey asked if participants had green eyes, not a threatening characteristic, then were told that 30 of 100 said they were.

Participants were then asked to extrapolate and rate the pervasiveness of either gayness or having green eyes for all 500 employees. Ratings were higher, on average, among participants rating the prevalence of gay employees than among those rating the prevalence of green-eyed employees.

The research showed similar results with respect to Black people, immigrants, people with pro-choice beliefs with respect to abortion, and people with pro-life beliefs with respect to abortion.

This research is striking because it helps us to understand why non-dominant groups may evoke such fear in the population. And it might help us to understand why discrimination – and in some cases, violence – ensues. The researchers offer the example of “white flight,” white people moving away from perceived “Black neighborhoods” as one possible outcome of this bias.

Unfortunately, it isn’t clear how we can address this deep-rooted bias. Hopefully, the compelling evidence that this bias exists might help to guide us toward possible solutions that are urgently needed in our deeply divided country and world.

References

Ponce de Leon, R., Rifkin, J. R., & Larrick, R. P. (2022). “They’re Everywhere!”: Symbolically threatening groups seem more pervasive than nonthreatening groups. Psychological Science, https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211060009.

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