The Situationist

Archive for October 28th, 2007

Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 28, 2007

hate1.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 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 explanation by social psychologists (which we would describe as “internal situational” sources of hate. This post includes Gunz’s discussion of some of the external situational sources of hate first discovered by social psychologists.

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In 1954, psychologist Muzafer Sherif spent a summer dressed as a janitor at a summer camp to which he had brought two dozen perfectly normal 12 year old boys. In this classic study the boys were divided into two separately housed groups, who spontaneously took on names for themselves – the Eagles and the Rattlers.

There, he tried out one of the oldest, gold plated, tried and true, best ways to get people to hate each other: finding something they both can’t have. Historically speaking, jobs, land, money, churches, all have been favourites. Sports leagues have used this principle for years with silver cups. Psychologists call it the realistic threat hypothesis. A quick glance at those sports leagues will show that the prize doesn’t have to be realistically valuable, though, just somehow real. Still, honor and prestige are both real to human minds, as is “truth,” that most hard-fought-over piece of mental real estate. Get people excited about any of the above, and you’re well positioned for a launch down the well-trodden road to belligerent disrespect.

In his test of this theory, Sherif started his boys playing competitive games against each other after a few days. He offered prizes such as penknives, with the losing team receiving nothing. Within days, tauntings and food fights escalated to the point that the boys refused to eat meals in the same room. The campers began playing pranks on each other, stealing each others’ flags, and behaving in a generally rotten and scurrilous manner.

This may sound like nothing more than child’s play, but adults, too, respond to competition. As the anthropologist Thomas J. Schoeneman noted in 1975, witch hunts worldwide tend to follow closely after social turmoil. They peaked in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries when churches fell under siege from science and monarchs, they peaked in Massachusetts when Puritan influence there came under intense fire, and they peaked in Washington when China and the USSR loomed as threats. Meanwhile, a paranoid Stalin was holding witch hunts of his own. This isn’t a uniquely Western phenomenon; similar, if less murderous, patterns have been observed in Africa.

Competition, then, can spur prejudice. But if you look carefully at what happened in the Sherif experiment, the boys actually started taunting each other before competitive games were introduced –though they were still happy to eat together at that point. This illustrates another psychological finding, albeit one that has only come to be fully understood only recently: ingroup biases really don’t take much to get started.

Henri Tajfel’s minimal ingroup experiment is famed for illustrating just how little is required. He asked boys to guess how many dots were shown on a speckled slide and subsequently announced they were over- or underestimators. Next the boys distributed points (that were exchangeable for money) amongst each other. They tended to give more to those who were the same ‘type’ as themselves. They had spent mere minutes as a member of this transparently meaningless ingroup, and yet were already showing favoritism! Before you wonder which type you are, and how you can spot members of the other kind so you can fleece them, know this: Tajfel decided which type they were based on a coin flip, rather than anything they actually did. The kinships of “overestimators” with other “overestimators” wasn’t just flimsy, it was completely fictitious.
Now short-changing a stranger for a few bucks is a long way from, say, burning them as a witch, or blowing them up in a market place. But then being told you’re an “overestimator” is also a long way from discovering a wave of heretics threatening your way of life, or foreign soldiers patrolling the place you call home. It’s amazing that such a small prod produced any response at all.

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Schoeneman, T. J. (1975). The witch hunt as a culture change phenomenon. Ethos, 3, 529-554.

Sherif, M. (1961). Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation; The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, Oklahoma: University Book Exchange. Retrieved from

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

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Part III of this series is available here.  For previous Situationist posts on how competition can encourage prejudice and disrespect, see “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball” and “March Madness.”


Posted in Emotions, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 7 Comments »

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