Who Blasts Minorities When Feeling Bad About Themselves?

Testing a classic idea from Gordon Allport.

Posted Dec 20, 2018

Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport was the godfather of research on the psychology of prejudice. His 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice is full of many insightful hypotheses about the ways in which we prejudge the members of other groups.  One of Allport’s hypotheses was that minorities might displace their own feelings of inferiority onto other minority groups.  ‘‘Victims of prejudice may, of course, inflict on others what they themselves receive . . . Pecked at by those higher in the pecking order, one may, like a fowl in the barnyard, peck at those seen as weaker and lower than oneself . . . ” (p. 153).  

This suggestion is compatible with some other classic work on prejudice, done by Theodor Adorno and his colleagues.  In his classic work on the authoritarian personality, Adorno hypothesized that when a person’s self-esteem is threatened by someone from a higher status group, the person is likely to displace their negative feelings onto a member of a group that they perceive to be even worse off than they are, as when poor Whites derogate poor Blacks.  

But even the most eloquently stated and insightful-sounding hypotheses might not actually be correct, which is why we do research.  In a pair of thought-provoking studies, Jenessa Shapiro set out to test Allport’s idea about how victims of prejudice will treat other victims. 

In their experiments, Shapiro and her colleagues examined what Black college students would do when their self-worth was threatened by a fellow student who was either White or Black. If you were a subject in the research, you would have first written an essay, which would be critiqued by another student, who happened to be an English major.  If you were in the experimental condition, you would receive a highly critical evaluation, which, for example, gave you an insultingly low score on a scale labeled “demonstrates intelligence.”  After blasting you with dismally low numbers of the rating scales, your evaluator would write in a comment: “I thought the essay was very poor.” Previous research has indicated something you won’t find surprising: Getting lambasted in an evaluation makes you feel bad about yourself.  

The next phase of the study was ostensibly unconnected – an exercise in managerial skills.  This was followed by a managerial task – you would be asked to act as a manager considering an application for a job.  Sometimes you would see an application filled out by a White person, other times you might have been assigned to see the same application, but filled out by a Native American.  

This study was designed to test the possibility that Black students who were feeling bad about themselves would react by derogating the members of another minority group. But as you can see in the figure, it didn't quite work out that way.

When it was a White person who gave the negative feedback (see the left side of the figure), Black participants who got negative feedback were unaffected in their ratings of either the White or the Native American job applicant. 

Original figure, based on Shapiro et al., 2010
Results for Black Participants. Area highlighted in yellow indicates results opposite Allport hypothesis.
Source: Original figure, based on Shapiro et al., 2010

What about when the negative feedback was given by a Black student?  Would that lead Black students to turn on the Native American job applicant? No, again, in that case, they rated the Native American more highly.  But as you can see on the right side of the figure above, highlighted in yellow, they were more likely to derogate a White job applicant.  This was, of course, the opposite of what Allport's hypotheses would have led us to expect.

White participants, on the other hand, were relatively unaffected by negative feedback from a Black evaluator (see the right side of the second figure, below).  But when Whites were given negative feedback by a White evaluator, they rated the Native American job applicant lower, while rating the White applicant more positively (as shown on the left side of the figure below, highlighted in yellow). 

Original figure, based on Shapiro et al. results
Results for White participants
Source: Original figure, based on Shapiro et al. results

This was more consistent with the barnyard displacement hypothesis, but it was the members of the more powerful majority group, rather than the other minority group members, who responded like birds in a barnyard pecking order.

Shapiro and her colleagues noted that this research was done in reaction to criticisms that most prejudice and discrimination research has examined how members of the majority group respond to minority groups.  As this research suggests, the responses of minorities to other minorities, and their responses to the majority group, are often quite another story.  

Related post

When not discriminating is discriminating: Jenessa Shapiro's thought-provoking research on stereotypes. 

References

Shapiro, J. R., Mistler, S. A., & Neuberg, S. L. (2010). Threatened selves and differential prejudice expression by White and Black perceivers. Journal of experimental social psychology, 46(2), 469-473.  

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. New York: Anchor Books

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