Guest Column: Psych Matters

Submission Note

The department of psychology would like to help build a more welcoming climate for racial/ethnic minority students, staff and faculty at Iowa State.

One way in which we would like to demonstrate our commitment to reducing racism and discrimination is through this editorial series.

In this continuing series, educational pieces on the psychology of racism and personal stories written by various faculty and students will be shared. Last week, we heard from Dr. Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology, on the topic of stereotypes. Today, Dr. Anderson addresses prejudice, discrimination and microaggression, a special form of discrimination.

This series was edited bv Stephanie Carrera, graduate student in psychology and Carolyn Cutrona, professor and chair of psychology


In Part 1 we defined stereotype as the “cognitive” or the “belief” aspect of categories of people. We also noted that categorization processes are a normal aspect of human cognitive functioning, are based on learning experiences, tend to become automatized (and unconscious) with practice and that such categorization processes are usually useful, efficient and beneficial aspects of the human mind.

Prejudice can be thought of as the emotional aspect of categories of people. By this we mean the automatic emotional reaction that the category evokes. It is the automatic prejudging of someone as “good” or “bad” based on their person category membership. For example, the category of young black males automatically gives rise to feelings of fear or anxiety. Stereotyped categories can also include positive effective reactions, such as the reaction an ISU student might have upon seeing someone in Iowa City wearing an ISU sweatshirt.

As with stereotyping, prejudiced feelings are learned from birth until death and often arise without conscious awareness. Sometimes the automatic feelings are sufficiently intense to attract our attention, at which point we can become aware of those feelings. Nonetheless, the subtle ways that our automatic categorizations of others lead to stereotypical beliefs and prejudiced feelings frequently have a huge effect on our behavior, and can do so without our being aware of these effects.

Discrimination can be thought of as the behavioral aspect of the whole person categorization phenomenon. When we treat one person differently than we treat another person in the same situation, we are discriminating between them. Discrimination itself isn’t necessarily bad or unethical or illegal. When we have multiple applicants for a single job, we must discriminate between various applicants to make a hiring decision. If we discriminate on the basis of truly relevant and legal criteria, then we’ve made a good and proper decision.

For example, if the job requires expertise in designing farm equipment, and one applicant has demonstrated greater expertise at this than all of the others, then hiring that applicant is appropriate (assuming equal or superior qualifications on other relevant criteria). However, if we discriminate on the basis of irrelevant criteria, such as race, gender, religious or sexual preference, then the discriminatory act becomes inappropriate at best, and unethical and possibly illegal at worst.

One type of harmful discriminatory behavior is a microaggression. Microaggressions have been defined as subtle behaviors toward a minority person by a majority-culture person that appear to reveal negative attitudes (i.e., negative prejudice feelings) by a majority person. For example, some racial/ethnic minority individuals who work as waiters at restaurants report that many white people avoid contact with their hands while exchanging payment for a meal. Along similar lines, racial/ethnic minority individuals sometimes note that, as the patron of a restaurant, they don’t get as good service from white waiters as do white patrons.

Other examples of how stereotypes and prejudice lead to inappropriate behavior abound. At an extreme level, we see these forces at work in the number of unarmed criminal suspects (frequently black) killed by police in the United States. Even though these numbers have recently become the topic of widespread news coverage, social psychologists have measured and warned of this phenomenon for at least a decade.

One laboratory procedure used to assess such behavioral tendencies is called the shooting paradigm. Research participants observe potentially dangerous scenes on a computer screen, and for each scene they press a “shoot” or “don’t shoot” button as quickly as possible. They are supposed to shoot only when the suspect has a gun. Racial/ethnic minority suspects (blacks, Muslims) are “shot” relatively more frequently than white suspects, and this is also true with black participants.

I’d like to close with two anecdotes from my experience. No 1. In 1980, my wife and I moved to Houston from California. At that time, much of the Midwest was in a major recession because of the oil embargo, and Houston was filling up with former autoworkers from Michigan. We shared a driveway with one of our neighbors, whose fishing boat was parked partially on our property, thereby blocking access to our backyard garage. One day I asked him to move his boat so that I could access our garage, and volunteered to help him. He exploded in a rage about “you damned Yankees coming here from Michigan, you just think you can push your way around ….” Apparently, the local stereotype of newcomers all being pushy among unemployed Michiganders was so strong that it overrode all evidence to the contrary.

No. 2. My wife and I grew up in Indiana, so we were used to what the Iowa natives call “Iowa nice.” We were not prepared for racial animosity as it then existed in Houston. Our first visits to department stores were real eye-openers. We noticed that when we were in a checkout line with a black cashier, we would experience considerable hostility, whereas black customers did not. I started watching how black customers were being treated by white cashiers; it was much the same. The degree of racist behavior by both blacks and whites was something very foreign to us, but I suspect is not at all unusual for most racial/ethnic minorities.

These two experiences helped me to see how pervasive stereotypes and prejudice could be. As white middle-class individuals in a predominately white society, we seldom experience the feeling of being “outsiders” that is a common experience for many racial/ethnic minorities in America.

Everyone is susceptible to such biases, both as a perpetrator and as a victim, though groups that are stereotyped in primarily negative ways and are fewer in number or low in power are harmed the most. Interracial relations in the United States have improved dramatically in the last 40 years, but modern U.S. society still has a long way to go, and each generation must learn to fight the pressures and tendencies toward stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Part 3 will address some of these issues.