Whether we like it or not, people live and function in distinct social groups. Often times, an individual is a member of multiple groups and thus will identify with these varying groups. These social groups are often positive in that they provide the social support needed to help the human species survive and thrive. However, some groups provide such a strong social identity for individuals that it is hard not to view individuals in terms of “us-them” categories. This is when group membership has the potential to become dangerous. Once we start to view ourselves with labels such as “us” vs. “them,” we get into a dangerous territory known by social psychologists as intergroup bias. Intergroup bias is composed of two parts: 1) in-group favoritism, which essentially means showing preference toward one’s own in-group members, and 2) out-group derogation, which means treating out-group members poorly, especially in comparison to one’s in-group. Often times, out-group derogation can take on the ugly form of hate, prejudice, and discrimination.
This intergroup bias exists across a multitude of groups, including gender, race, religion, and even sports teams or university affiliation. The problem does not necessarily lie in identifying with one’s group members. Rather, it lies in viewing those lying outside one’s own group negatively, often in order to bolster esteem among one’s own group.
Unfortunately, time demonstrates that there will always be an out-group to hate. In America, that out-group has shifted over time from African Americans to gay men and lesbian women, and now, according to a recent article in the New York Times by Robert Wright, that out-group may be Muslims. Despite much progress made in recent times to reduce prejudice against gay men/lesbian women, a new out-group to hate – Muslims – has emerged.
This pattern of derogating specific minority groups in America keeps repeating – African Americans were derogated, then eventually the civil rights movement helped reduce that prejudice. Then, gay men/lesbian women were derogated, but according to Wright’s article, this prejudice has decreased dramatically in recent years. Now on the rise (and openly accepted by some) is prejudice against Muslims, referred to as Islamophobia.
So who’s to blame? Often, most people point their fingers at Christians, suggesting that intolerant scripture is what promotes prejudice against value-violating out-groups such as gay men and Muslims. However, according to Wright and based off research done by Putnam and Campbell, this may not be the case. Putnam and Campbell note that three decades ago, less than 50% of frequent churchgoers in America were fine with gay people openly expressing their views on gayness. Today, however, that number has risen to 70%. And no Biblical scripture has changed in the meantime. Thus, there seems to be a cultural component to this prejudice.
What’s the cause of this reduction in homophobia? According to Putnam and Campbell, the only way to reduce this prejudice is to build bridges between the out-group and the in-group. As these bridges have been built over time, prejudice against gay men and lesbian women has been reduced. This way of reducing negative attitudes toward out-groups works across a myriad of groups. For instance, there is an often understated, overlooked prejudice against evangelical Christians. This prejudice too can be reduced using the bridge model. Research by Putnam and Campbell demonstrates that individuals who gained evangelical friends rated evangelicals more warmly. So why is prejudice against Muslism so high? It could be that the current population of Muslims in the United States is so small and in such concentrated areas that bridges are hard to build with this community.
So how do we build bridges with the Muslim community? And if these bridges are built, will another minority rise up as a target for discrimination? These are the questions left unanswered. As a prejudice researcher myself, I also aim to understand what causes prejudice and how to reduce it. But the big question is, can you ever prevent society from having a constant out-group to derogate?