Feelings Tell Us Friend or Foe: Threat as Justification for Prejudice
Bahns, Angela Joy
University of Kansas
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Knowing how we feel about a group is enough to influence whether we perceive the group as threatening or non-threatening. Some theories assume that threat causes prejudice, such as integrated threat theory (ITT; Stephan & Renfro, 2002; Stephan & Stephan, 2000) and other cognitively-oriented models of prejudice. An affective primacy perspective (Crandall et al., 2011; Pryor et al., 1999; Zajonc, 1980) instead suggests that prejudice can cause perception of threat. Four experiments tested the hypothesis that prejudice causes heightened perception of threat, using affective conditioning to create negative (Expts. 1-3) or emotionally specific (disgust-provoking or fear-provoking; Expt. 4) affective associations with unfamiliar social groups. When a group was associated with negative affect, its members were stereotyped as more threatening and less warm (but no less competent) compared to when it was associated with positive affect (Expts. 1, 3). Conditioned prejudice increased perception of threat (Expts. 2 and 4), and caused a consistent pattern of behavioral response tendencies (Expts. 3 and 4). Groups associated with negative affect were more likely to be aggressed against, and less likely to be approached. The effect of conditioning was statistically reliable for judgments of warmth and threat, but not for judgments of competence (Expts. 1-3). Disgust conditioning increased perception of symbolic threat and realistic threat, and increased aggressive response tendencies (Expt. 4). The effect of disgust on aggressive behaviors was mediated by symbolic threat, and the effect of disgust on avoidance and approach behaviors was mediated by realistic threat. Together, the findings demonstrate that prejudice can cause perception of threat, which undermines the favored interpretation of the correlational basis of cognitively-oriented theories such as ITT. Correlational data in support of cognitively-oriented theories is consistent with both directional paths--threat can cause prejudice, and prejudice can cause perception of threat. Experiments are necessary to distinguish between threat's role as a cause for prejudice and threat's role as a justification of prejudice.
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