Updated: Prejudice, discrimination and social norms

Race perceptions in America (CNN)

News: Donald Trump, the President of the United States, continues to make and post derogatory statements that are based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and a host of other things.

The fact that the highest elected official in the United States, a position with immense influence in the U.S. and in other countries, makes these statements on a regular basis creates a norm–a standard, an “authoritative model” of behavior and conduct.

Human beings follow social norms. We particularly adhere to the norms of the groups we identify with. Many studies, as far back as the 1940’s and 1950’s, have shown how powerful this effect is. “Social norms are remarkably strong predictors of expressed prejudice. The acceptability of discriminatory acts and expressions of hostility also closely follow social norms.” “Social norms are strong predictors of expressions of prejudice-related attitudes.” “Individual tolerances [of racism, discrimination, etc.] solidly reflect group tolerances.

So, does this mean that the U.S. especially is sinking back to a time when open expression of racial/gender/ethnic/religious hostility was “normal” and encouraged and was even codified by law?

Yes and no. “People reflect the social milieu in which they live.” Our world today is composed of many, many groups (political, ethnic, religious, business, academic, gender, and on and on)–each with their own social norms. The U.S. is not one big homogeneous set of “Americans” (despite what some politicians and those who fervently support them will claim) who all have one set of values and who all believe and act the same–it never has been. While there are certainly groups today who support the norms voiced and tweeted by Mr. Trump, there are other groups who adhere to norms that are very different, indeed, quite the opposite.

While a common American norm may always have been a myth, diversity in the United States has been a strength. In the absence of a unifying leader, it is even more important.

Featured article:

Crandall, C. S., Eshleman, A., & O’Brien, L. (2002). Social norms and the expression and suppression of prejudice: The struggle for internalization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(3), 359-378. [Cited by]

“The authors studied social norms and prejudice using M. Sherif and C. W. Sherif’s (1953) group norm theory of attitudes. In 7 studies (N = 1,504), social norms were measured and manipulated to examine their effects on prejudice; both normatively proscribed and normatively prescribed forms of prejudice were included. The public expression of prejudice toward 105 social groups was very highly correlated with social approval of that expression. Participants closely adhere to social norms when expressing prejudice, evaluating scenarios of discrimination, and reacting to hostile jokes. The authors reconceptualized the source of motivation to suppress prejudice in terms of identifying with new reference groups and adapting oneself to fit new norms. Suppression scales seem to measure patterns of concern about group norms rather than personal commitments to reducing prejudice; high suppressors are strong norm followers. Compared with low suppressors, high suppressors follow normative rules more closely and are more strongly influenced by shifts in local social norms. There is much value in continuing the study of normative influence and self-adaptation to social norms, particularly in terms of the group norm theory of attitudes.”

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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