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Favoritism, not hostility, seen behind much discrimination

May 19, 2014
Courtesy of Doree Armstrong/University of Washington
and World Science staff

Most dis­crimina­t­ion in the U.S. is­n’t caused by in­ten­tion to harm peo­ple unlike us, but by or­di­nary fa­vor­it­ism di­rect­ed at help­ing peo­ple si­m­i­lar to us, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port.

“We can pro­duce dis­crimina­t­ion with­out hav­ing any in­tent to dis­criminate or any dis­like for those who end up be­ing dis­ad­van­taged by our be­hav­ior,” said Uni­vers­ity of Wash­ing­ton psy­chol­o­gist Tony Green­wald, who co-authored the paper with Thom­as Pet­ti­grew of the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Cruz. It’s “so­ci­e­tally im­por­tant to un­der­stand how dis­crimina­t­ion can oc­cur both with­out hos­til­ity and with­out any in­tent to dis­criminate.”

In the work, pub­lished in the jour­nal Amer­i­can Psy­chol­o­gist, Green­wald and Pet­ti­grew re­viewed ex­pe­ri­ments and sur­vey meth­ods from pub­lished sci­en­tif­ic re­search on dis­crimina­t­ion from the last 50 years. They were sur­prised to find that the dis­crimina­t­ion found in those stud­ies oc­curred much more of­ten as help­ing rath­er than harm­ing. But they al­so found that most re­search­ers de­fined dis­crimina­t­ion as based on neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes and hos­til­ity, only rarely treat­ing fa­vor­it­ism as a com­po­nent of dis­crimina­t­ion.

That makes sense, Green­wald said, be­cause most peo­ple think of dis­crimina­t­ion as the re­sult of hos­til­ity: a white per­son spout­ing an­ti-black rhet­o­ric, or a ho­mo­phobe yelling slurs at a gay cou­ple. But, he ar­gues, it’s more sub­tle acts, ones peo­ple don’t even rec­og­nize as caus­ing dis­ad­vant­age to an­yone, that are likely to be more im­por­tant.

Take this hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nar­i­o: When con­duct­ing re­views of two em­ploy­ees, a man­ag­er finds they both fall be­tween two per­for­mance cat­e­gories. The man­ag­er gives a high­er cat­e­go­ry to the em­ploy­ee whose child is friends with the man­ag­er’s child, lead­ing to a pro­mo­tion and sal­a­ry raise, while the oth­er em­ploy­ee re­ceives a smaller raise and no pro­mo­tion.

Was the man­ag­er con­sciously dis­criminating against the sec­ond em­ploy­ee? Or did she simply give a boost to some­one to whom she had an “in­group” con­nec­tion?

“Y­our ‘in­group’ in­volves peo­ple that you feel com­fort­a­ble with, peo­ple you iden­ti­fy with,” Green­wald ex­plained. “We usu­ally think first of de­mo­graph­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics like age, race, sex, re­li­gion and eth­ni­city as es­tab­lish­ing an in­group, but there are al­so in­groups based on oc­cupa­t­ion, neigh­bor­hood and schools at­tended, among oth­er things. Out­groups are those with whom you don’t iden­ti­fy.”

“This is not to say that prej­u­dice and hos­til­ity are not re­lat­ed to out­group dis­crimina­t­ion,” Pet­ti­grew said. “But they are not as cen­tral to most dis­crimina­t­ion as in­group fa­vor­it­ism.”

Yet, his­tor­ic­ally, so­cial sci­en­tists have em­pha­sized prej­u­di­cial hos­til­ity as the root of dis­crimina­t­ion. “We looked at how prej­u­dice has been de­fined in the his­to­ry of psy­chol­o­gy. It has gen­er­ally been un­der­stood as hos­til­ity to­ward out­groups. That’s easy to do,” be­cause con­flict between groups “is an ob­vi­ous fact of life,” Green­wald said.

He added that he hopes re­search­ers will change the way they study dis­crimina­t­ion, as re­search re­sults have substan­ti­al im­plica­t­ions. He said overt acts of dis­crimina­t­ion be­gan to de­cline start­ing in the 1960s fol­low­ing civ­il rights laws. But prej­u­di­cial at­ti­tudes did­n’t nec­es­sarily change. What changed is that peo­ple were no long­er le­gally al­lowed to act on their prej­u­dices by, for ex­am­ple, de­ny­ing hous­ing to blacks or jobs to wom­en.

The co-authors say that ra­cial in­group fa­vor­it­ism can be very sub­tle. For in­stance, if you work in an of­fice that is mostly white and you’re asked to rec­om­mend some­one for a job open­ing, you’re more likely to rec­om­mend some­one who is like you. This sort of fa­vor­it­ism hap­pens at all ages and in dif­fer­ent situa­t­ions: it can hap­pen on the play­ground, where chil­dren may ex­hib­it fa­vor­it­ism based on race, eco­nom­ic class, or the same school or sports team.


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Most discrimination in the U.S. isn’t caused by intention to harm people different from us, but by ordinary favoritism directed at helping people similar to us, according to a new report. “We can produce discrimination without having any intent to discriminate or any dislike for those who end up being disadvantaged by our behavior,” said University of Washington psychologist Tony Greenwald, who co-authored the review with Thomas Pettigrew of the University of California, Santa Cruz. The work is published in the journal American Psychologist. Greenwald and Pettigrew reviewed experiments and survey methods from published scientific research on discrimination from the last five decades. They were surprised to find that the discrimination found in those studies occurred much more often as helping rather than harming. But they also found that most researchers defined discrimination as based on negative attitudes and hostility, only rarely treating favoritism as a component of discrimination. That makes sense, Greenwald said, because most people think of discrimination as the result of hostility: a white person spouting anti-black rhetoric, or a homophobe yelling slurs at a gay couple. But, he argues, it’s more subtle acts, ones people don’t even recognize as causing disadvantage to anyone, that are likely to be more important. Take this hypothetical scenario: When conducting reviews of two employees, a manager finds they both fall between two performance categories. The manager gives a higher category to the employee whose child is friends with the manager’s child, leading to a promotion and salary raise, while the other employee receives a smaller raise and no promotion. Was the manager consciously discriminating against the second employee? Or did she simply give a boost to someone to whom she had an “ingroup” connection? “Your ‘ingroup’ involves people that you feel comfortable with, people you identify with,” Greenwald explained. “We usually think first of demographic characteristics like age, race, sex, religion and ethnicity as establishing an ingroup, but there are also ingroups based on occupation, neighborhood and schools attended, among other things. Outgroups are those with whom you don’t identify.” “This is not to say that prejudice and hostility are not related to outgroup discrimination,” Pettigrew said. “But they are not as central to most discrimination as ingroup favoritism.” Yet, historically, social scientists have emphasized prejudicial hostility as the root of discrimination. “We looked at how prejudice has been defined in the history of psychology. It has generally been understood as hostility toward outgroups. That’s easy to do, because inter-group conflict is an obvious fact of life,” Greenwald said. “There are international conflicts, wars, gang battles, labor-management conflicts. When such conflicts are going on it’s natural to think of them as rooted in hostility.” Greenwald hopes researchers will change how they study discrimination, because research results have substantial implications both for how discrimination is identified and how it can be ameliorated in employment, health care, education and daily life. He said overt acts of discrimination began to decline starting in the 1960s following civil rights laws. But prejudicial attitudes didn’t necessarily change. What changed is that people were no longer legally allowed to act on their prejudices by, for example, denying housing to blacks or jobs to women. The co-authors say that racial ingroup favoritism can be very subtle. For instance, if you work in an office that is mostly white and you’re asked to recommend someone for a job opening, you’re more likely to recommend someone who is like you and the rest of your ingroup. This sort of ingroup favoritism happens at all ages and in different situations. Greenwald said it can happen on the playground, where children may exhibit ingroup favoritism based on race, economic class, or the same school or sports team. “Hostility isn’t integral to the definition of discrimination; you can treat people differently without being hostile to anyone,” Greenwald said. “But it is societally important to understand how discrimination can occur both without hostility and without any intent to discriminate.”