The Situationist

Situationist Theories of Hate – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 1, 2007

hate-crimes.gifSocial 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. Part II included Gunz’s discussion of some of the external situational sources of hate first discovered by social psychologists. This part discusses reasons why we hate and why we think we hate.

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Why We Hate – What We’ve Learned
In 1998 a man in Laramie, Wyoming named Matthew Shepard was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Mr. Shepard posed no threat to his attackers; he wasn’t competing with them for any resources, nor even carrying anything valuable. He was just gay. But if the antipathy motivating this violence cannot reasonably be ascribed to any very realistic threat, where did it come from?

Perhaps it was just learned. Cultures pass on many pieces of useful information to their members — how to make fires, raise kids, win friends, and who to watch out for. People grow up hearing about the dangers of Black “pimps” and White “trash.” They read about thieving Jews (even in Dickens and Shakespeare), Arab terrorists, and a panoply of other “thems,” who are variously sneaky, pushy, violent, dishonest, or just plain disgusting. The hallmark of such cultural knowledge is that when asked, people reply “everyone knows.” For example, “everyone knows” that eating with your hands is bad manners. Here and now it’s a cultural truism. Where and when Matthew Shepard went to school, homosexuality was inexplicably on this cultural hit list.

Cultures can work quite hard on the problem of hate. The Nazis spent a great deal of energy on propaganda to convince ordinary German to view Jews as less than human. Conversely, much of the western world has spent the last half century working in the opposite direction, expending a great deal of energy to remove prejudices. It can go both ways.

Do We Hate to Feel Good?
Prejudices can be used as mental shortcuts to warn us away from liars, cheats and other no-good bastards — that’s likely a big part of why we have them. But prejudice can also salve our hurts and bring us closer together. No, that’s not a misprint. Let me explain.

In 1997 there was, at one large Midwestern university, a sizable population of Jewish women from Long Island and New York, who were strongly and openly stereotyped as “JAPs” – prissy, fussy, “Jewish American Princesses.” Recognizing this, Steven Fein of Williams College and Steven Spencer of the University of Waterloo presented students there with the résumé and photo of a job candidate, whom they were able to intimate, via subtle alterations of her name, hair style, activities, and affiliations, was either Jewish (‘Julie Goldberg’, wore a star of David, volunteered for Jewish charities, etc), or not (‘Maria D’Agostino’, wore a crucifix, etc.). They then had people rate how nice a person Julie/Maria was, and whether to recommend her for a job.

Before people completed this task, though, they were made to feel bad. The researchers gave everybody impossibly hard logic puzzles, telling them that it was an important and very widely used IQ test. The hapless test-takers, no doubt already rattled, were then told that they had scored very badly (obviously they were told the truth and apologized to before they left the lab). The researchers knew from previous studies that when people have been put through this type of wringer they are especially likely to lash out at unpopular groups, and that’s exactly what happened this time too. JAP Julie was given much worse reviews than her (otherwise identical) alter ego Maria.

jap-paper-doll-book.jpgInterestingly enough, dumping on the Jewish girl seemed to cause people’s self-esteem to recover from the humiliation of the impossible IQ test. The more negatively test-takers rated “Julie Goldberg,” the closer they returned to their initial baseline of self-esteem. Expressing prejudice actually restored their temporarily dented feelings of self worth. These participants would doubtless have recovered anyway, but they used prejudice as a cruel shortcut back to equanimity. The philosophy seemed to be: “if life hands you lemons, pelt them at someone until you feel better”, Recall Matthew Shepard, beaten to death by a pair of homophobic Wyomingites (State motto: “Equality”)? His assailants, perhaps suffering the ill effects of a cultural squeamishness about gays, may have felt anxious. Apparently lacking the sense to see this as their own problem, they appear to have indulged in hateful action to make themselves feel better. Homophobia, then, might offer both feelings of threat and a nasty shortcut to alleviate it. The inbuilt cure is worse than the original disease.

On a more prosocial note, the boys at Sherif’s camp might have used prejudice not to feel better, but to pull their groups closer together. It makes sense if you think about it. Humans have clumped together since prehistoric times for protection, and that impulse still runs strong in us, especially when we’re faced with a threat. When the United States was attacked on 9/11, there was an immediate and enormous pulling together, as people turned to each other for support. The same community bonding happened in World War II when London was blitzed, and seems to happen all too often in the Middle East as its crises come and go.

There’s a twisted yet compelling logic which says that if people pull together in face of an enemy, and if pulling together is what you want, then what you really need is an enemy. When the Rattlers and Eagles first started disparaging each other, believe it or not, what they might have been trying to do was make their group more cohesive.

Why We Think We Hate
Imagine talking to one of Sherif’s campers. He could probably tell you with great authority that Eagles are jerks, liars, and cheats. He would tell you that they are stupid and tricky, blithe to the contradiction between those two things. Furthermore, he would tell you (as 12 year-olds are wont), that Eagles are smelly. If some egg-head scientist interrupted that this was all really about realistic threat and attempts at group cohesion, the Rattler would probably add some choice words about the scientist too. Eagles are stupid, end of conversation.

“How do you KNOW they are stupid,” the scientist might ask?

“Easy,” the Rattler would say, “because they are.” It’s the Tupac hypothesis of prejudice; “That’s just the way it is.”

The egg-headed scientist would be left to claim that the Rattler just doesn’t have mental access into why he started thinking such nefarious things about Rattlers. She would be on strong ground with his claim, too. Perhaps the best illustration is with split brain patients, who have had the connection between the two halves of their brain literally chopped out (no, psychologists aren’t total sadists; this was done as an early treatment for epilepsy). With these patients, you can tell one side of their brain to do something, such as stand up, and often they will do so. If you ask them why they leapt to their feet, the other side of their brain, not knowing why, will just make a reason up. “There was a draft,” the person might report. “Why did I laugh? It’s just a funny machine you’ve got me looking at here.” Psychologists call this confabulation.

Now our Eagle-hating Rattler presumably has an intact brain, but he still might not have been aware of how the right motivational context could have rewarded his early fumblings in the direction of prejudice. But if asked, he will confabulate reasons about stupidity, jerk-ishness, and odious smells. And then he will believe them.

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Fein, S., & Spencer, S. J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 73, 31-44.

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

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Part IV of this series is available here.

4 Responses to “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part III”

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

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

  3. […] Theories of Hate – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part […]

  4. […] of some of the external situational sources of hate first discovered by social psychologists. Part III discussed reasons why we hate and why we think we hate. This part, the final in the series, picks […]

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