Speakers address the psychology of discrimination

Two prominent social psychologists analyzed issues of stereotype, prejudice and discrimination in a set of lectures last week.

Associate Professor of Psychology Steven Fein brought Dr. Jennifer Crocker and Dr. Patricia Devine to campus in conjunction with a class he teaches on stereotypes and prejudice. The Committee on Diversity and Community also helped organize the lectures.

Crocker, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, spoke last Tuesday on the consequences of belonging to a stigmatized group.

Crocker said most people assume that members of groups devalued because of their race, sexual orientation or appearance internalize negative feedback and consequently suffer from poor self-images compared to non-stigmatized people. However, she argued that the effect of a stigma on self-image depends upon the social context and meaning of the situation in which one is discriminated against.

When asked to respond to Crocker’s presentation, Fein said “Because of the contextual nature of self-esteem, the overall effects of stigma on self-esteem are not as obvious as most people think.”

Crocker added that most studies testing the effect of stigmas on self-image have operated on the assumption that self-esteem is a stable trait across situations, while it should be seen instead as an unstable factor, constructed by the given situation.

Highlighting five experiments, she presented evidence that self-image change due to stigma is dependent upon the collective representation or shared beliefs of individuals in a situation and the relevance of these beliefs to the situation.

Fein attempted to summarize Crocker’s argument.

“She described studies in which individuals apparently were socially rejected by someone else,” he said. “She looked at what effect negative feedback would have on their self-esteem. She found that when black students were rejected by white students in a situation in which they believed that the white student was aware of their race, their self-esteem was not hurt by the rejection, in fact, their self-esteem went up to some extent. These individuals discounted the judgement as racist and external to them as individuals. On the other hand, when overweight students were socially rejected by someone who knew about their weight, their self-esteem did drop. Why did their self-esteem suffer when that of the black students didn’t?”

Crocker said this discrepancy is a result of our collective representations of race as uncontrollable and weight as controllable and the influences of these beliefs on the situation.”

Crocker concluded that psychologists need to study collective representations further in order to conquer the idea that human differences are global, immutable, and stable.

Stephanie Moore ’00, a student in Fein’s class, said some aspects of Crocker’s lecture make sense to her.

“Jennifer Crocker’s argument was convincing,” she said. “It makes sense based on her many examples to conclude that self-esteem depends upon the situation.”

However, Lindsay Renner ’99 said although she was interested by Crocker’s lecture, she finds it to be difficult to think of her own self-esteem in such transient terms.

Patricia Devine, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, spoke on Friday about the motivation that people have to respond without prejudice.

Devine questioned whether the impressive decrease in stereotypical judgements which has been observed in the past 20-25 years of surveys can actually be trusted. She argued that social pressure to respond without prejudice may lead some people to lie about their true feeling to avoid social sanctions. In order to study more closely for whom and when we can trust verbal reports, Devine and a colleague created a scale to distinguish between external and internal motivation to respond without prejudice. She described the scale and detailed the efforts of past researchers to distinguish between actual and feigned non-prejudice attitudes.

Devine concluded that we can rely upon private, anonymous forms as measurements of stereotypical attitudes much more than we can rely upon public measures as the latter may be affected by normative social pressure to hold egalitarian beliefs.

An internal and external motivation scale constructed by Devine should help psychologists ascertain truthful responses. Devine explained that according to her research, people who are high in internal motivation feel guilty when they respond with prejudice since they have failed to live up to their own “should” standards, while people who are externally motivated feel threatened since they have violated the strong social norm against prejudice which exists in our society today.

Devine said distinguishing between these motivations and the consequent feelings allows us to more accurately gauge the true level of prejudice which exists today than do surveys alone.

Mike Hickey ’00 said he was impressed by Devine’s lecture.

“The PC movement has created a sort of superficial prejudice-free world, while, in fact, at least for the older generation, prejudice is alive and well,” he said. However, Hickey added that he believes our generation is definitely more tolerant than previous generations.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Ken Savitsky said he was impressed with both speakers.

“This was a great opportunity for Williams students to hear the ideas of two cutting edge social psychologists,” he said.

Professor Fein added, “Although some of the details of what speakers presented may have gone over people’s heads because of the technical nature of some of it, and the sheer volume of the experiments they described, I think that everyone could get a sense of the energy, creativity, and scientific rigor these researchers put into their research on topics that are so important in our society.

“I hope that some of the students in the audience were inspired simply by that, whether or not they grasped all the nuances of their research findings.”