New Study Shows Prejudice Causes Perception of Threat, Can Be Used to Justify Actions Resulting from Prejudice

July 29, 2015
Collection of images meant to envoke positive, negative feelings

New research by Angela Bahns, assistant professor of psychology, shows how easily people can be conditioned to feel prejudice and that unrecognized prejudice can be the source of perceived threat. The study was published this month in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.

Bahns conducted a series of experiments that conditioned participants to feel negatively or positively toward unfamiliar social groups. Participants were shown either positive or negative images and words alongside the name of a country, then asked to rate their feelings toward each country and how much of a threat immigrants from those countries posed to the jobs, safety, values, and personal freedoms of Americans. Finally, they were asked to rate the groups on stereotype traits—whether they were untrustworthy, threatening, violent, or dangerous.

“There was a consistent pattern of results,” Bahns said. “When the country was associated with negative affect (and no threat-related information was available to contest the threat perception) its inhabitants were perceived to be more threatening.”

Bahns’ research suggests that unrecognized prejudice can trigger the feeling of being threatened and later used as a way to justify negative emotions and behavior. “It’s a balancing system used to maintain a positive view of ourselves and not see ourselves as biased,” she said. “Threat perception serves as a justification for why we might not like someone. When it’s working in this way, we don’t even see it as prejudice.”

Bahns hopes that these findings will lead to greater awareness of how threat perception can be used as a way to explain the experience of prejudice, rather than forming the source of the prejudice itself. “Most people recognize that prejudice is wrong and want to avoid it. But in order to reduce prejudice we have to first admit it’s there.”

In an interview this week with Bahns discussed how her research may help explain police officer and vigilante violence toward unarmed black men. Bahns told Salon, “My research shows that unrecognized prejudice may be the actual root here: People may not think that they’re biased, but prejudice is driving the perception of threat.”

The smart way for individuals, or society, to respond to the findings, Bahns told Salon, is for people to be more open to admitting we are biased. “With changing social norms, it’s become unacceptable to be prejudiced, and people want to distance themselves from that,” Bahns said. “And I think that’s harmful — because it blinds us to the ways that even well-intentioned people are blinded to the stereotypes that exist in the broader culture.”

She continued, “I would say the big take-home from this research is that when threat is used to justify prejudice, it’s really a balancing system that helps us feel like we’re good people. When that’s in place, we’re completely blind to the source — the fact that we’re prejudiced in the first place.”