People overestimate groups they find threatening – when 'sizing up' others, bias sneaks in


Jacqueline Rifkin, Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Missouri-Kansas City and Rebecca Ponce de Leon, Assistant Professor of Management, Columbia University


Places are not just physical, but also social.


For instance, around the North Carolina campus where we met, we knew certain bars based on the students who frequented them — the “Duke bars” versus the “UNC bars.” Or, when traveling, we may try to guess whether most of the patrons at a restaurant are tourists – and if so, go elsewhere.


This common way of thinking about our environments seemed fairly reasonable to us until a few years ago, when we noticed something that gave us pause.


We’ve overhead one of our alma maters, the University of Pennsylvania, pejoratively referred to as “Jew-niversity of Pennsylvania,” and one of our hometowns, Decatur, Georgia, disparagingly called “Dyke-atur.” These labels are not only deeply offensive … they are also wrong. Neither of these places are actually majority Jewish or gay. And yet, some people seem to hold the belief that these groups dominate these spaces.


Where do these beliefs come from, and why do people make these inaccurate judgments? Perhaps more importantly, why might this matter?


As social psychologists who explore how intergroup dynamics affect organizational and consumerphenomena, we were fascinated by these questions. Four years ago, we set out to answer them.


Across six studies, we found that people commonly exaggerate the presence of certain groups – including ethnic and sexual minorities – simply because they are perceived as ideologically threatening. Psychologists call this feeling – that groups hold different values and worldviews from the mainstream, thereby jeopardizing the status quo – “symbolic threat.”


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