Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



(Photo: stable/Shutterstock)

Your Racist Relatives May Just Be Feeling Left Out

• January 31, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: stable/Shutterstock)

German researchers find feelings of social exclusion breed intolerance of minorities.

What leads people to develop a hostile, suspicious attitude toward minorities? Social scientists have a variety of theories. But recent research from Germany reports a mindset of intolerance can be triggered by a surprising catalyst: The discomfort that arises when one feels ostracized or excluded.

A research team led by social psychologist Nilüfer Aydin reports feeling excluded from a desirable social group threatens a person’s “sense of personal control.” In response, the researchers argue, some people attempt to reassert control by derogating stigmatized minorities.

Addressing these painful feelings is not “a panacea against radicalization and xenophobia,” the researchers write in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, “but it may be part of a broader strategy to address the problem.”

“When threatened by uncertainty, people identify more strongly with extremist or ethnocentric groups. Engaging in (political) radicalism may reduce feelings of uncertainty by restoring a sense of predictability and controllability in one’s social world.”

Aydin and her colleagues provide evidence of this dynamic by describing four experiments. One of them began with the participants, 50 University of Munich students, reading one of three short stories about a person who had just started a new job. In one version, the new employee’s co-workers were welcoming and helpful; in another, they were actively hostile. In the third version, the central character was treated in a neutral way.

Then, after reading a news story about the proposed construction of a mosque in Munich, participants responded to a series of statements, including “Muslims should not practice their religion so publicly” and “Muslims should stay in their own group.” Finally, they were invited to sign a petition in support of the project.

The results: Those who were feeling a sense of social exclusion “reported stronger anti-Muslim attitudes.” Only 25 percent of people in that category signed the pro-mosque petition, compared to 37.5 percent of those who had read about social acceptance, or read a neutral scenario.

In another study, participants who wrote about a time they felt “severe social exclusion” were less supportive of the Munich mosque project than those who recalled a time they felt accepted, or (in the neutral condition) a time they felt ill. The researchers found similar results in an experiment measuring attitudes toward requirements for German citizenship.

In the final experiment, the 62 participants (again, University of Munich students) read one of the aforementioned new-job scenarios. Afterward, they wrote about either a “situation in your life in which you perceived yourself as particularly powerful,” or one where they felt “particularly powerless.”

Finally, they indicated their degree of agreement or disagreement with four statements, including “Foreigners increase crime rates” and “Foreigners take jobs away.”

Once again, a feeling of exclusion led to more negative feelings toward minorities, but this effect was erased when participants were given the opportunity to recall a time when they felt powerful.

“We conclude that helping people to restore a sense of control over their lives can prevent intolerance after social exclusion,” the researchers write.

Why would some people respond to feeling left out in this decidedly unhelpful way? Aydin and her colleagues point to Social Identity Theory, which suggests our sense of self is largely based on our group membership.

“When threatened by uncertainty, people identify more strongly with extremist or ethnocentric groups,” they write. “Engaging in (political) radicalism may reduce feelings of uncertainty by restoring a sense of predictability and controllability in one’s social world.”

Their study raises an interesting question: Could it be that hard-core haters of President Obama are driven, at least in part, by real or imagined fears of exclusion as the nation’s racial and ethnic makeup evolves? These results suggest the idea is very much worth studying.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.

October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.

October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.

October 27 • 4:00 PM

School Shootings: What’s Different About Europe?

There may be a lot of issues at play, but it’s undeniable that the ease of access to guns in the United States is a major contributing factor to our ongoing school shooting crisis.

October 27 • 2:00 PM

The Best Investigative Reporting on Campaign Finance Since 2012

From dark money to a mysterious super PAC donor, here are a few of the best investigations of money in politics since the last elections.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.