The Situationist

Memory Biases as Source of Prejudice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 13, 2011

From Miller-McCune:

A recent poll finding nearly half of Mississippi Republicans disapprove of interracial marriage is a disturbing reminder of the continuing prejudice faced by minority groups in 21st-century America. Why is such bias seemingly immune to eradication, and why does it seem to be more prevalentamong social conservatives?

A fascinating new study from Italy suggests at least part of the answer can be traced to the way we process information and form political attitudes. Psychologists Luigi Castelli and Luciana Carraro of the University of Padua present evidence that our perception of minority groups is often distorted due to inaccurate recall of information.

This phenomenon, they add, is more pronounced among social conservatives.

Presented with a series of facts about members of two groups, “Conservatives developed more negative impressions towards the minority group,” which were reinforced by ”consistent memory biases,” they report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Strikingly, the researchers found this effect without making reference to race, religion or sexual orientation. All it needs to be activated, it seems, is the presence of a larger group and a smaller one.

In their first experiment, 234 students read a series of 39 sentences, each of which described an action of some sort. The person engaging in this behavior was identified as either a member of Group A or Group B.

Twenty-seven of the sentences described positive behavior (Jim gives up his seat on the bus to an elderly woman), while 12 described negative behavior (James often tells many lies).

Twenty-six of the sentences referred to someone from Group A, while only 13 referred to a member of Group B. The ratio between positive and negative behavior was the same for each group: 18 positive and 8 negative for Group A, 9 positive and 4 negative for Group B.

After reading the sentences, participants evaluated the two groups, rating the applicability of such adjectives as “intelligent,” “sociable” and “lazy.” They were then provided with all the sentences and asked to estimate how many of the described actions were performed by members of each group, and how many of each group’s actions were negative.

Finally, the students’ level of social conservativism was measured by having them give their views on five hot-button topics, including immigration and gay marriage.

The researchers found “an illusory association between Group B and negative behaviors.” Specifically, “the perceived proportion of negative behaviors” was significantly higher for Group B, although in fact the two groups were identical in this regard.

“Increased levels of social conservativism were associated with more negative evaluations of Group B as compared to Group A,” the researchers add. “The illusory correlation between Group B and negativity was accentuated among conservatives.”

The researchers then performed the experiment a second time, with one change: The proportions were reversed, . . .

More.

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