Higher Moral Obligations: An Additional Burdern for Oppressed Minorities

Being a victim of discrimination is not easy. Research shows that targets of discrimination are at higher risk for a range of negative mental and physical health outcomes, including increased symptoms of depression, heightened stress reactivity, increased risk of suffering from a mental health disorder, and greater substance abuse. Findings recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggest another burden for oppressed minorities:

...we propose that stigmatized group members are expected to be more tolerant toward other disadvantaged groups relative to non-stigmatized group members.

You read that correctly. The majority has higher standards of tolerance toward outgroups for minorities than for other members of the majority group. Why? Details and explanation below the fold.

The research team was led by Saulo Fernandez at the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia (UNED) in Madrid, Spain. His collaborators included Nyla R Branscombe at the University of Kansas in Lawarence, Tamar Saguy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya in Herzilya, Israel, and Angel Gomez and J. Francisco Moraels, both at UNED. The researchers expected that members of a stigmatized minority group would be expected to have more tolerant attitudes toward members of another stigmatized minority group than members of a non-stigmatized minority group.

What did the researchers do?

The study consisted of four experiments, each of which involved Spanish undergraduates as research participants. In the first experiment eighty-nine participants read a fictitious report about research on attitudes toward immigrants. Half of the participants read an article about attitudes toward immigrants among people with dwarfism (stigmatized group condition), while the other half read an article about attitudes toward immigrants among young people (non-stigmatized group condition). While reading the article, participants learned that the target group's (either people with dwarfism or young people) attitudes were positive or negative.

Subsequently, participants in the negative attitude condition learned that the target group’s attitude toward immigrants was negative (“70% of the [target] group think that illegal immigrants should be expelled out of Spain”). In contrast, participants in the positive attitude condition learned that the target group’s attitude toward immigrants was positive (“70% of the [target] group think that Spain should provide help and facilitate the integration of illegal immigrants in our society”).

So this leaves us with four different conditions and participants were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions.

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Before reading the story, the participants were asked what they expected their target groups attitude to be, and after reading the story, they were asked (a) if the target groups attitudes confirmed their expectations, (b) about their emotional responses to the groups attitudes, and (c) about the morality of the groups attitudes.

What did the researchers find?

As expected, the participants expected members of the stigmatized group, the people with dwarfism, to have more positive attitudes toward immigrants than members of the non-stigmatized group, young people. And consistent with expectations, negative attitudes toward illegal immigrants was seen as less moral when held by the stigmatized group, than by the non-stigmatized group. They replicated these findings in the third experiment with different groups. Gay people were used in the stigmatized group condition, while civil servants or bank employees were used in the non-stigmatized group condition.


This was the goal of the remaining three experiments in the study. The researchers explain this effect in terms of the just-world hypothesis. The just-world hypothesis was proposed by Melvin Lerner and has been the subject of a great deal of psychological research. The basic premise of the just-world hypothesis is that we have an inherent need to believe that "what goes around, comes around". We need to believe that the life is basically fair, where bad behavior is punished and good behavior is rewarded. If something bad happens to somebody, its because they "had it coming". If something good happens to somebody, its because they deserved it.

This may sound delusional, but some research suggests that this false belief may actually be beneficial. This makes the world a more predictable place and makes the individual feel less vulnerable to tragic events. If I do good things, then good things will happen. If I don't do bad things, bad things won't happen. Indeed, psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown have argued that such false beliefs carry positive mental health consequences:

Evidence from social cognition research suggests that, contrary to much traditional, psychological wisdom, the mentally healthy person may not be fully cognizant of the day-to-day flotsam and jetsam of life. Rather, the mentally healthy person appears to have the enviable capacity to distort reality in a direction that enhances self-esteem, maintains beliefs in personal efficacy, and promotes an optimistic view of the future. These three illusions, as we have called them, appear to foster traditional criteria of mental health, including the ability to care about the self and others, the ability to be happy or contented, and the ability to engage in productive and creative work.


Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, psychodrew. What about floods and hurricanes and cancer? Are you saying people think victims of such disasters "had it coming"?

Not necessarily, and the just-world hypothesis addresses this issue. In fact, this is the where the just-world hypothesis ties into research I described above. We know that bad things will undoubtedly happen to innocent people, so we compensate for that reality by looking for some positive meaning in the injustice or some positive outcome for the victims. Or as the authors of this study put it:

Thus, reinterpreting the victim’s tragic experiences so that benefits are derived can be viewed as a strategy for dealing with the threat to justice that observers experience when confronted with injustice.

Somebody would say that battling breast cancer has made a woman more appreciative of what she has in life. Or at my cousin's funeral some twenty years ago, the priest talked about how the sudden and brief illness that preceded her death gave time to bring my fractured family back together. From a just world perspective, my having been a target of homophobia has made me a stronger person and more sensitive to the needs and suffering of others.

And this latter example gives rise to the higher moral obligations (HMO) hypothesis. From an HMO perspective, members of stigmatized groups should be more sensitive to the suffering of stigmatized outgroups because they themselves were similarly the victims of prejudice and discrimination (see also Warner & Branscombe, 2012). Thus, these higher expectations for members of such outgroups are a coping mechanism when faced with a threat to one's idea that world is basically just place.

The goal of this diary was to take some fascinating psychological research on an important topic hidden behind a paywall and written in academic jargon and make it more accessible to this community. I hope that I have done that, and I am happy to answer any questions in the comments.




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