Everybody Hurts Prejudice
Oct 14, 2021

Everybody Hurts: Prejudice Caused by and Resulting in Negative Emotions

How do differences in emotional experience and regulation affect the development of prejudicial attitudes?

By Jordan Mansell, Amanda Friesen, Mathieu Turgeon

This post is the second in a series from the 11 Awardees of the Templeton World Charity Foundation's Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing. The Foundation is investing US $60 million to grow the field of human flourishing to encompass scientific research, practice, and policy. Check back as we launch further requests for proposals under this important rubric.

“Open-mindedness is a key for growth, and willingness turns it on. We do not have to accept everyone’s beliefs or ideas, but we can thoughtfully examine them.” —Sir John Templeton, Wisdom from World Religions

With continued globalization and migration patterns, most people find themselves living in increasingly diverse communities. Still others may reside in places with the same groups for generations or even centuries. Belonging to a group is important for human flourishing, social support, and mutual aid. Group membership, however, often comes at the expense of boundaries to distinguish one’s community from another. It is in this tension that prejudice, racism, and xenophobia can thrive and disrupt progress and human flourishing. Using an innovative design of physiological responses and emotion regulation training, our project seeks to address one of the causes of prejudice – individual-level emotions. 

Individuals and groups who experience prejudice in their daily lives have lower levels of educational and economic attainment, lower personal efficacy, and show poorer health outcomes and personal well-being (Flanagan et al., 2009; Schildkraut, 2005). In sum, prejudice carries negative consequences for social and economic development and interpersonal connections, both of which are necessary for human flourishing. 

Though systems and structures contribute to the persistence of prejudice and its harms, individual-level traits and emotions can also drive these attitudes toward others. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers in the United States, people from around the world came together through the Black Lives Matter social movement to speak out against anti-Black racism and anti-Black violence. In the wake of one of the largest social justice mobilizations of our time, groups, institutions, governments, organizations, and firms responded with messaging, attempts at structural change, and programs like anti-bias training. 

Unfortunately, the anti-bias training often only uncovers implicit or explicit bias, without examining the cause. We argue that the key to a successful intervention is identifying the foundation of the problem. Prejudice has many roots, but we are interested in better understanding how negative emotions and an inability to properly regulate these emotions may be part of prejudicial beliefs and behaviors.  

While emotions influence empathy and promote sociality, they also bias perceptions of trustworthiness or community membership based on arbitrary cues like skin color. For example, variation in emotional responses to outgroups’ cues is linked with an individual’s tendency to perceive threat and generate negative emotions (Buck, 2014; Cacioppo et al., 2014; Canetti-Nisim, et al., 2009; Oxley et al., 2008). Outgroup attitudes have also been connected to disgust sensitivity and disease avoidance (Aarøe et al., 2017; Hodson and Costello, 2007; Tybur et al., 2016). An important fact which emerges from this complex relationship is that prejudicial attitudes are related to variations in how individuals perceive, process, or respond to information around them.

Focusing on this dynamic between perception, processing, and response, our project’s guiding question is: How do differences in emotional experience and emotional regulation affect the development of prejudicial attitudes?

Figure 1: Emotion Regulation Model of Prejudice












Click to view larger

Conceptually displayed in Figure 1, the project has two research objectives:

  1. To investigate whether the suppression of negative emotions (anger, disgust, fear, resentment) contributes to prejudicial attitudes toward other groups.
  2. To investigate whether teaching individuals to reappraise their negative feelings and manage their emotions in a positive way will have a lasting effect on their biases and prejudicial attitudes.

Emotional suppression is a type of emotional regulation strategy which tries to make uncomfortable or overwhelming thoughts and feelings more manageable by pushing these out of your mind. Psychologists have demonstrated that emotional suppression is often ineffective at removing unwanted thoughts and feelings (Garnefski & Kraaij, 2007; Gross & Levenson, 1993). In fact, suppression can increase emotional intensity or recurrence of these feelings while also placing significant physical stress on the body (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). As a result, the suppression of emotions is associated with several negative life events, including increased risks of anxiety, depression, and stress (Aldaoe et al, 2010; Gross and John 2003; Moore, Zoellner, Mollenholt, 2008; Nezlek and Kuppens 2008). Alternatively, emotion reappraisal involves guiding individuals to think differently about a negative event, which can be effective at reducing the negative emotions individuals associate with other people and life events (Duker et al. 2019).

Using a sample of participants who differ in their attitudes about ethnic outgroups, we plan to apply measures of physiological responses to images and other visual cues to identify what happens to prejudicial attitudes when emotions are suppressed. In the first part of this project, we assess participants’ attitudes, biases, and emotional (physiological) arousal in response to outgroup members. In the second part of this study, we investigate what happens to prejudicial attitudes when emotions are appraised rather than suppressed. 

We are studying emotion as a psychological system influencing prejudice. Individuals who are more likely to detect threats or experience strong negative emotions may develop biases. They also may be more likely to avoid activities and experiences that moderate the formation of these attitudes, such as socialization with outgroups or participation in diversity outreach initiatives (Petersen, 2019). By working with individuals high on prejudicial attitudes, this project aims to obtain critical knowledge for developing more effective anti-prejudice policies and programs. 

Working in collaboration with the Mosaic Institute, a recognized global leader in prejudice reduction, social justice, and policy development, one of our key objectives is to utilize the research findings to develop more effective strategies for combating prejudice. We hope to develop policies to assist individuals at a high risk of developing prejudice (or who are seeking rehabilitation) to understand the source of their anxiety toward others and to redirect these emotions toward more beneficial outcomes. 

We hope to influence and advance policy in three ways.

  1. Combining the data from this study with other research on emotions and prejudice, we will produce a policy document highlighting key steps for mitigating the causes of prejudice not addressed by current initiatives that rely on socialization, empathy, and education.
  2. Second, because the current measures evaluating the effectiveness of prejudice interventions are limited, we intend to develop a simple monitoring and evaluation tool for practitioners to obtain a meaningful measure of an intervention’s efficacy.
  3. Lastly, we will disseminate our findings to a diverse community of decision-makers through a policy workshop held in conjunction with the Mosaic Institute. Given the individual harm caused by prejudice, this project has the potential to significantly impact the quality of life of many people in Canada and abroad.

By focusing on emotion regulation, a highly relevant but understudied factor, we hope to make a significant contribution to cross-disciplinary research on the causes of prejudice, a pressing issue within contemporary societies and a significant barrier to human flourishing. Through a simple intervention of teaching emotional reappraisal, we also look to directly improve the quality of life of both those who have prejudice and those who are the targets of prejudice. By synthesizing this and other research on prejudice into a position paper, we believe that this project may be beneficial to governmental bodies, non-governmental organizations, corporations, and institutions invested in the development, efficiency, and effectiveness of evidence-based anti-prejudice policies. Last but not least, we think this project may also motivate individuals with prejudicial views to seek aid in developing a healthier social mindset.

Dr. Jordan Mansell is a post-doctoral researcher in the Network for Economic and Social Trends. Dr. Mansell uses life science and psychological approaches to study variations in attitudes and ideologies. 

Dr. Amanda Friesen is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western University who uses life science and psychological approaches to the study of political and social engagement. 

Dr. Mathieu Turgeon is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western University who uses psychological approaches to study political attitudes and behavior.

Acknowledgment of the research partners in our advisory board. 

Dr. Victoria Esses, Network for Economic and Social Trends, Western University

Dr. James Gross, Stanford University

Dr. Allison Harell, The Université du Québec à Montréal

Dr. Robert Hinckley, The State University of New York at Potsdam

Dr. Valérie-Anne Mahéo, Université Laval

Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi, McMaster University

The Mosaic Institute, Toronto, Canada

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