The recent controversy ignited by talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger is just one of many incidents in recent memory that has put the public spotlight on the topic of racism in America. On the one hand, many sectors of American culture seem to be very engaged in efforts to promote racial equality and the celebration of diversity. On the other hand, public spectacles such as the Dr. Laura incident, journalistic coverage of social problems and injustices that involve race as a variable (e.g., the government response to Katrina), and scientific research in the fields of psychology and sociology indicate that racism and prejudice in general are still major problems our society faces.
Though we often hear about deep-rooted institutional and cultural forces that contribute to racism, it seems like we less often hear about the psychological motives and processes involved. In other words, psychologically, what does being racist do for a person? Below I provide a list of psychological motives that appear to contribute to racism.
A number of published studies have demonstrated that people sometimes use prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behavior to boost their own self-esteem. When people’s self-esteem is threatened, prejudicial actions such as racism appear to restore esteem (at least for some). This is obviously not a socially productive way to gain feelings of self-worth, but it appears to be one way that some people do it.
2. Positive Distinctiveness
Humans are social creatures. We like being part of a group and just as we like to see ourselves in a positive light (self-esteem), we like to perceive our groups as important or significant (positive distinctiveness). The problem is that one way this is done is by looking down on members of other groups. So if someone is noticeably different in some way, people sometimes hold negative attitudes about that individual because they belong to a different group. Classic and contemporary research in social psychology supports this idea as people tend to respond more favorably to others if they share a common group identity. This identity can be religious, political, social, and even racial. As America becomes increasingly diverse and our attitudes about defining groups become more inclusive, hopefully, this will change. However, at least for some individuals, it seems like race is still an important group distinction and this distinction promotes negative attitudes towards people who belong to other racial groups.
3. Certainty and Structure
Many people strive to have a very clear and unambiguous view of the world. For such people, a changing world causes great anxiety. Change can be things like the election of the first African American president, increasing numbers of ethnic minority populations, more diversity in the workplace, etc. Indeed, there is now a fair amount of research demonstrating that people who are high in a trait psychologists call personal need for structure (a proclivity to want to see the world in a clear, certain, and unchanging manner) often engage in stereotypic thinking and respond to situations that make them feel threatened with prejudicial and even hostile attitudes towards those who are different in some way. For these people, prejudice appears to be a means to restore a very rigid belief system about the world. People who are low on this trait are more open to change and seem to be okay with uncertainty. These people thus seem much less likely to be racist.
Some scholars have argued that prejudice and racism in particular may be driven, in part, by basic survival motives. Humans evolved as a species that thrives in groups, and groups compete over scarce resources. And we do not have to look back at our ancestors to see this in practice. Even today, nations and groups within nations fight over access to limited resources (e.g., water, good land, ports, oil, etc). Classic social psychological research demonstrates that it is very easy to pit groups against one another if they are competing for a scarce resource. Remember the television show Survivor? Therefore, one cause of racism may be an innate proclivity towards group conflict in the service of resource acquisition. Of course, this is extremely problematic and maladaptive in the modern interconnected and mobile world. However, when humans evolved, our world was much different. Our brains evolved for that world, not the modern world we live in today. Therefore, we must strive to have belief systems that reject what may be a natural inclination to not trust or hold negative attitudes about people who look different than us. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a long road ahead of us if there is any truth to the assertion that prejudice may be rooted in basic survival motives.
Scholars drawing upon evolutionary psychology also have asserted that racism may be driven by dominance motives. They argue that humans, like many other primates, are hierarchical animals. To have a hierarchy, there must be status differences between people. Racism helps preserve status differences because it oppresses minority groups. In support of this assertion, research has found that people who are high in dominance motivation tend to be in professions that promote hierarchy or in positions of authority. These high dominance individuals are also more inclined to hold prejudicial attitudes towards members of minority groups. This is perhaps where laws and social policy are critical. If some people are motivated to oppress certain groups, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to promote equality and social justice.
In closing, there are a number of psychological motives that help keep racism alive. And these motives undoubtedly contribute to the broader social and institutional forces that preserve racism. It is important to understand these motives because knowledge is power. Knowing the psychological forces that promote racism (and other forms of prejudice) will help us combat it and find more socially positive ways to meet basic psychological needs and thrive as a species. In a world that will only become increasingly diverse, has a growing number of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and faces environmental dangers that threaten all humans, it may be our capacity for cooperation, not conflict, that saves us all.