Where do discrimination and prejudice come from?

by Marc Wilson / 10 October, 2017

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People’s attitudes to discrimination and prejudice usually stem from their childhood, says psychology professor Marc Wilson.

Why do people hate each other to the point that they’ll go armed to a “peaceful” rally because they want to protect a symbol of historic slavery?

The answer, for a group of Jewish researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, in the aftermath of World War II, was that bad acts are committed by bad people. These researchers – Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford – proposed that the people responsible for the Holocaust displayed an “authoritarian personality”.

It came about, they said, because Germans of the time raised their children in a punitive and unaffectionate way, which made the children angry. Anger, as Yoda might say, leads to fear that can’t be diminished by telling your parents to stop being so mean. You love your parents and, besides, they’ll punish you if you step out of line. So, instead, you find a scapegoat to aggress against to make you feel better.

They also suggested that this authoritarian personality could be measured using their catchily named California Fascism Scale, which is now available online. According to my scores, I am a “liberal airhead” (but not quite a “whining rotter”). The F-Scale fell out of favour because of some fatal flaws and because, as it turns out, authoritarians could be found everywhere in the southern states of the US.

Theodor Adorno. Photo/Getty Images

Now we have new ways to assess people’s predisposition to authority, and there has been a resurgence in the view of personality-like ideas as the foundation for prejudice and discrimination.

One important development comes from Auckland emeritus professor John Duckitt. He synthesised decades of work to propose that there are two different, but complementary, personality-like pathways to prejudice. As with the Berkeley group, Duckitt sees these as blooming in childhood.

First – and here’s where Duckitt draws inspiration from Berkeley – imagine a childhood characterised by punishment for even the smallest transgressions. This Wednesday’s child is likely to become a conformist – how better to avoid a spanking than not to stand out? But the world is a dangerous place for this kid, with evildoers around every corner wishing you ill.

As a result, such a person will come to value legitimate authority, because those are the institutions and people who will protect them from evildoers. Such a person will see threats everywhere, because these people look different from them and profess different beliefs and ideologies. Boom, intergroup conflict.

Alternatively, imagine a childhood without enough hugs, he says. Such a child is more likely to develop a ruthless and tough-minded personality and grow to see the world as a jungle.

How do jungles work? The alpha predators are at the top of the hierarchy, with the prey on the rungs below, and this kind of person will want to be the predator. As a result, they denigrate people who look and think differently from them, because outsiders threaten social, political and economic hierarchies.

A wealth of research worldwide shows these ideas explain to a large degree how people see each other.

So, my recipe for making the world a better place is to hug your kids, but not too much. Be a role model and don’t be unnecessarily punitive. It ain’t rocket science.  

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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