The Situationist

Situationist Theories of Hate – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 27, 2007

hate-image.jpgSocial Psychologist Alexander Gunz just published a thoughtful and surprisingly fun summary of social psychological theories about why we humans seem to “hate” so readily and so often. The full article is in the latest edition of In-Mind, which we highly recommend. We will excerpt portions of Gunz’s informative and entertaining article in this post and several to follow. This post provides Gunz’s introduction to the topic of hate and a brief overview of the personality-based explanation by social psychologists (which we would describe as “internal situational” sources of hate).

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Humans are passionate creatures. Our passions drive us, gives us a sense of belonging, and unite us as few other things can. Still, there are only a couple of passions that have been constants down the ages, passions that people from every place and culture can agree on. Love is one, but another is that “those no-good bastards over there are trouble.” Of course, we quibble endlessly over the exact definition of “those” — every culture, pretty much, has had a different group in mind. But the singular fact of prejudice per se was as recognizable in Ancient Greece, Rome, and Samaria as it is now in modern Greece, Rome, and Arkansas.

Not only do we disagree over who Those Bastards Over There (TBOT) are, but also over why we hate them so much. Nose size has been cited in the past as a reason, as has intellectual capacity (too much or too little), and bad manners (eating without implements, eating with implements, etc). Hate may be a massively universal thing, but we are shockingly divided over why we do it. Personally, I blame TBOT.

Psychologists, though, (hate us or loathe us) aren’t as sanguine about not knowing, and have spent a great deal of time investigating prejudice in its many guises. They have come to two broad classes of answers: (a) Reasons we hate each other, and (b) Reasons we think we hate each other. There’s not as much overlap between those two as you might hope.

Why We Hate – A First Stab at Them It.

Scientific psychology started getting seriously interested in prejudice just after the Second World War. There’s nothing like a conspicuous mountain of corpses to really get you going on the question of hate.

The first really influential answer that psychology came to was not the ever popular theory that “some people are just jerks,” but neither was it far off. A German intellectual called Theodor W. Adorno released a book in 1950 called “The Authoritarian Personality,” in which he detailed research on his “F-scale.” This scale was designed to pick out people who were, among other things, conventional minded, uncritically accepting of authority, and accepting of the need for authorities to aggressively apply their power. He called it the F-scale, because he thought it would pick out people prone to fascism. Other people pointed out that it might not do a bad job picking out Soviet style communists either, but as a committed Marxist Adorno wasn’t as taken with this application.

These ideas have been updated as the construct of “Right Wing Authoritarianism,” about which the leading authority, Bob Altemeyer, has written a highly readable book which is available for free online HERE. New research (e.g. [Situationist Contributor] Jost, 2006) is adding to this showing that people who are very low in the commonly measured “openness to experience” construct seem to be more likely to be both right wing, and prejudiced.

Psychologists have long noted people’s over-fondness (at least in the western world) for explaining actions in terms of the personalities of the actors involved. It is therefore not really surprising that personality-based explanations were the first ones to occur to psychologists too. However, we tend to neglect the possibility that sometimes people fall because they are tripped and not just because they are clumsy. In fact, this bias is so commonplace that psychologists have named it the fundamental attribution error. Might psychologists have fallen prey to this bias that they are so keen to note in others? Might hate come from one’s circumstances too, rather than only just ornery dispositions?

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Altemeyer, R. (2006). The Authoritarians. Retrieved from

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Oxford, England: Harpers.

Jost, J. T. (2006). The End of the End of Ideology. American Psychologist, 61, 651-670.

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Part II of this series is available here.  To read John Jost’s Situationist post on this topic, go toIdeology is Back!” To read his longer article published in volume 61 of the American Psychologist, pp. 651-670 (2006), go toThe End of the End of Ideology.” The next post in this series will include some of Gunz’s discussion of the possible external situational sources of prejudice and hate.


7 Responses to “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part I”

  1. […] Situationist Theories of Hate – Part I […]

  2. […] Situationist Theories of Hate – Part I […]

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  5. […] are excerpting portions of Gunz’s informative and entertaining article in this series of posts. Part I provided Gunz’s introduction to the topic of hate and a brief overview of the personality-based […]

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