The next time an estranged friend or relative makes an off-color remark, perhaps a racist or ignorant comment, consider how close other people are to that person. According to a recent study, people may show more racist attitudes simply because other group members have excluded them from the group.

We tend to think of contemporary culture as nuanced and somehow fundamentally different from decades and centuries prior. But social psychologists have understood since the 1970s that people like to organize themselves into groups with startling, formulaic regularity. Known as Social Identity Theory (SIT), the idea behind group membership posits inclusion and exclusion play critical roles in determining a person’s identity. Part of the collateral damage, the present researchers argue, is how people come to view other races.

“When threatened by uncertainty, people identify more strongly with extremist or ethnocentric groups,” the team wrote in its report, published in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.

Identifying The Racist

Teasing out whether someone is bitter and racist because they are excluded, or if they’re excluded because nobody likes a racist, is difficult in a natural setting. So the team took to their lab to conduct several experiments. Led by social psychologist Nilüfer Aydin, a team of researchers from the University of Munich recruited 50 college students to read one of three short stories about a person who had just started a job. In one version, the character’s coworkers are welcoming; in another, they are cold and exclusionary; and in the third, they show neutral openness.

Relying on the notion that readers gradually slip into the mindset of the protagonist, a phenomenon known as “experience-taking,” the team sought to understand how readers of each story would then form temporary attitudes toward ideas of foreignness. They had the subjects read a news story about a mosque being built in Munich, after which they were assessed on their agreeability to statements such as, “Muslims should not practice their religion so publicly” and “Muslims should stay in their own group.” Each was asked to sign a petition in favor of the mosque.

Aydin and her colleagues found those who read the story of social exclusion “reported stronger anti-Muslim attitudes.” Only 25 percent of the people in the group signed the petition, compared to 37.5 percent in the pro-social and neutral groups. What could explain this gap?

SIT-ting Down With Identity

Since the theory’s original conception, social psychologists have broken down SIT into a few different categories: the interpersonal-intergroup continuum, positive distinctiveness, and positive distinctiveness strategies (which itself has multiple arms). The interpersonal-intergroup continuum reflects why people will perform certain actions, with kamikaze pilots on one extreme and the soldiers representing two countries fighting a war on the other — and other, less fatal behaviors, such as playing pick-up basketball or participating in a protest, falling somewhere in between.

Positive distinctiveness is somewhat different. This sub-theory assumes people are constantly striving for a positive conception of themselves, as judged largely by the intergroup opinion. We like when people like us, basically. So we’ll continue to uphold that image as long as it doesn’t compromise certain ideals. In the event people don’t like us, SIT offers three methods for attaining a positive distinctiveness: individual mobility (striving for success without consideration for the group’s well-being, given the group hierarchy is permeable), social creativity (rethinking the group’s identity through specific channels — music being a popular example), and social competition (showing favoritism in order to demonstrate value by comparison).

That last method — social competition — sits at the heart of Aydin and her team’s study. When subjects read the character’s coworkers were harsh and unfriendly, essentially they were getting a glimpse of the coworkers’ social competition. The office was asserting their identity by way of excluding the rookie. As a result, the reader engaged in that competition and reflected it back, in this case toward Muslims.

The team also conducted two separate but related experiments. Subjects were asked to recall a time when they felt excluded, again to mentally prime them for social competition. The same anti-foreign ideals popped up. The final experiment drove the nail in the coffin when subjects were asked to describe a time they felt particularly powerful or powerless, before indicating their agreeability with statements such as, “Foreigners increase crime rates” and “Foreigners take jobs away.” The result echoed the two before it: Feelings of exclusion predicted negative feelings toward minorities.

“Engaging in (political) radicalism may reduce feelings of uncertainty,” the team wrote, “by restoring a sense of predictability and controllability in one’s social world.” So how can people overcome this seemingly natural consequence of exclusion? The team offers at least one solution: “We conclude that helping people to restore a sense of control over their lives can prevent intolerance after social exclusion.” In other words, don’t take it personally. Your identity is much larger than that.

Source: Aydin N, Krueger J, Frey D, Kastenmüeller A, Fischer P. Social exclusion and xenophobia: Intolerant attitudes toward ethnic and religious minorities. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. 2013.