I’m not discriminatory, but…

Is it even possible to be truly egalitarian and harbour no prejudice at all? This is my initial reaction having spent this evening with my MSc lecture series on prejudice and discrimination theories. This is another blog from the world of social psychology.

Take this example of stereotype content. Which Dr. Susan Fiske put forward in 2002.

Bias assessment

  • High income
  • Homeless
  • Professional athlete
  • Physically impaired
  • Science Graduate
  • Arts Graduate
  • Religious
  • Atheist
Fiske 2002 Stereotype Content Model

I have presented alternative categories to those offered by the studies in question, but ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and belief all feature in the original lists. The overriding point being that across these two metrics of warmth and competence, there are underlying generalisations that seem to recur.

Asch 1946 had theorised that categorising all traits, could be grouped into broader sets. Referenced as central or peripheral traits. This is not without critics but it offers some support to the attempted categorisations by Fiske.

Asch 1946

Central vs peripheral traits

Terms such as warm deemed to influence other trait opinions too (Asch, 1946; Kelley, 1950). Certain information key in forming an impression (cf. Asch’s (1946) “configural model”)

Fiske 2002 is therefore using relative warmth towards others, and task competence, to show how stereotypes exist to favour “in-group” assessments vs other (“out-group”) comparison. Our behaviours influenced by this subjective schema placement that we have made.

Implications on behaviour

What Fiske further demonstrated was that our in-group response tends toward itself or those it pities. Whereas a competitor group is a cold but competent other, perhaps a convenient supporter of the same system we benefit from but from whom scarce resource should be taken from. A passive indifference exists towards those of neither trait strength.

A common theme however was “in-group” only were both warm and competent and thereby encouraged.

Fiske 2002 Stereotype Content Model

Bias as automated activation

Category activation is not necessarily an applied bias. Fiske, argues however, that additional information – perhaps with application of inconsistency resolution and other person individuation being factored in – are possible to be allocated according to the perceivers motivations and capacity (ibid pp124). Fiske indicates that some bias does appear to be easily stimulated in some settings, and can be worrisome, “…automated reaction to out-group members matters in everyday behaviour” (pp124). Fiske concludes that there is perhaps more automation of bias than most people generally think, but less than psychologists traditionally thought.

The possibility of control – if so motivated

That is not to say however that we are without means to manage or change – if we are so inclined.

Whether bias is conditionally or unconditionally automatic, less prejudiced perceivers still can compensate for their automatic associations with subsequent conscious effort. If category activation is conditionally automatic, then people may be able to inhibit it in the first place. In either case, motivation matters

Susan Fiske, Princeton University, New Jersey – American Psychology Association 2002 pp124

Amongst such moderate attitude, inhibiting bias can rebound (pp124). Repressing specific bias less effective than attending to active focus upon individual appraisal of all. Not that this is easy, or perhaps even possible. Moderate bias can take the form of withholding of liking or respect, and an indirect bias can be upheld if it represents the norms of appropriate response (pp125).

Project Implicit suggests an implicit bias in many people who were tested. It was not without its detractors as a study but offered a large sample set of data and outcomes which are still hotly debated today. As quoted on the website “The mission of Project Implicit is to educate the public about bias and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the internet. Project Implicit scientists produce high-impact research that forms the basis of our scientific knowledge about bias and disparities.” It is worth a visit.

As an area of scientific research the subject of prejudice (thought) and discrimination (acted upon) is still being contested, particularly when at a personal level. In our lecture series today we have been directed toward work concerning culture vs personal attitude (Uhlmann, Poehlman and Nosek, 2012); Deliberate or automatic (Devine, 1989); Category activation as avoidable (Bargh, 1999); Mere exposure effect – Zajonc (1968); Social Learning (Bandura 1977, 1997); Frustration aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al., 1939) and the counter-positions (Miller, 1948; Berkowitz, 1962); Personality: Dogmatism and closed-mindedness (Rokeach, 1948); Personality: Social dominance theory (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999; Sidanius et al., 2001); Belief congruence theory (Rokeach 1960).

v | behaviour | t

It was estimated by Fiske that around 10% of a population of tolerant society would present openly intolerant views (pp123). The reflection upon this subgroup indicates a tendency towards vocations intent on maintaining a status quo (police not social work; business not education) and holding core values against out-group deviation with aggression. It is also observed that such extreme positions tend to bias within packs and are typically held against more than a single target out-group.

Whilst the extreme is important my own interest is amidst the more ambiguous, ambivalent or moderate bias which Fiske addresses throughout pp124-126. Here the “them and us” is addressed in increasing visibility, with behaviours from simply inhibited intervention, through to passive allowance and favouritisms (pp125 citing Brewer & Brown 1998) and the norms that allow this to occur; to exaggerations of difference and homogenous reaffirming negative perspectives. As ambivalence nears moderate bias so dislike of some groups becomes justification of social exclusion (pp125) whilst tolerating those equally competent but deemed cold, as parties also intent on maintenance of the system integrity to the benefit of both. Exclusion and avoidance, outward disregard, and increasing expectation of resource allocations directed with bias toward the in-group in mind, are presented as increasingly a shift toward the more extreme.

These are complex issues. I barely grasp the magnitude of this locally, let alone the globally real. However, what is clear to me is this behavioural element is visible and therefore actionable. It also seems clear from this reading that normalising behaviours are tolerated or encouraged behaviours. In that regard it seems necessary to have that in mind of ones self but not just for ones self, before then considering what that means for everyone else. Respect, seems a good place to start. And that really does start with the self as if it were other.

To be continued…



Fiske, ST. “What we know now about bias and intergroup conflict, the problem of the century” American Psychological Society, 2:4 Aug 2002.

Further reading references and wider notes credited to University of Nottingham lectures, Psychology MSc, 2021.

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