It's probably safe to say that everyone has at some time been the victim of prejudice because of race, gender, nationality, body shape, whatever. But oddly enough few victims of prejudice confront the perpetrator directly, according to various studies.
The cost of confronting ignorance can be high, and possibly lead to violence, so most people apparently just decide to take it on the chin, despite the fact that nearly everybody harbors some degree of prejudice. One study a few years ago by the University of Washington found that at least 90 percent of us have prejudices that we are unaware of, so we don't have to look far to find it.
So why don't we speak up when someone suggests we're sub-human because we're a little different? Maybe, according to a new study from Stanford University, we believe there's no hope of changing the other person's opinion.
"The confronting of prejudice remains relatively rare," note psychologists Aneeta Rattan and Carol S. Dweck in their study published in the current issue of Psychological Science. But it can happen, they conclude, if the victim thinks the perpetrator has the kind of personality that makes change possible.
Biased Statements Represent an Individual's Personality
"So, from the perspective of someone with a more fixed (or entity) theory of personality, when someone makes a biased statement, this represents their personality," Ratan said in an email. "And if you believe that personality cannot change, then you believe that this (biased/racist) person cannot change.
"From the perspective of someone with a more malleable theory of personality, when someone makes a biased statement it is viewed as an opinion, a perspective, or even just a thoughtless statement that can be changed."
"Targets of prejudice who believe that others can change may be more likely to speak up in the face of explicit bias in order to educate the speaker, thereby opening the door to the possibility of growth for people who make biased statements," the researchers write.
They conducted three experiments involving 202 Stanford undergraduates and found that they were much more likely to speak out if they thought there was some hope of changing the mind of another student who had made a biased statement. They were also more willing to engage the offending student in an ongoing dialogue.
Study May Not Apply to Everyone, Assumes Prejudice Is Product of Personality
The study may not apply to everyone because all the participants were enrolled in a prestigious university with high admission standards, so the students would likely assume that a fellow student, while biased, is smart and has an open mind. The most vocal offenders in the real world are often less intelligent and unlikely to change.
The study also assumes that prejudice is largely a product of personality, not mental acuity, so someone who believes that personality can change is more likely to confront a prejudiced person than someone who believes personality is fixed for life. One huge study concluded in 2003 that personalities do change over the course of a human lifetime.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Texas, Austin, examined 132,515 adults age 21-60 and found that conscientiousness, defined as being organized and disciplined, increased throughout the ages covered by the study, especially during a person's 20s.
Agreeableness, defined as being warm, generous and helpful, increased the most during the 30s. Neuroticism and extraversion declined for women as they aged, but not for men. Openness declined for both men and women as they aged.
Researchers Found Parts of Brains That Correspond With Personality Traits
As every parent knows, even infants come with a built-in personality. So are humans predisposed to act in certain ways, and believe certain things, even before they know how to read and write?
A fascinating study published in the Association for Psychological Science on June 22 found that different parts of the human brain vary from person to person, and those differences correspond to their personalities.
The researchers, at the University of Minnesota, zeroed in on the so-called Big Five personality traits - conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness/intellect. For the study, 116 volunteers described their personality in a questionnaire and then submitted to a brain scan.
Conscientious people tended to have a bigger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in planning and controlling behavior, according to lead author Collin DeYoung. They found similar brain differences for neuroticism and agreeableness, but there was no clear difference in brain structure for openness/intellect.
Stanford Researchers: Human Personality Is Not Fixed
Brain scans also allowed researchers at Harvard University and the University of Aberdeen to conclude in 2006 that different sections of the brain are involved in deciding whether another person is like, or unlike, ourselves. The researchers theorized that the neural machinery might contribute to prejudice because it facilitates perceiving other racial or ethnic groups as different, and it's convenient to think of different as inferior.
One way to fight that, they added, is to emphasize how alike different groups are, rather than how different. All this suggests that human prejudices are deeply embedded - or at least facilitated - by the structure of the human brain. And so is personality.
The Stanford researchers conclude, as do others, that human personality is not fixed and remains "basically a bundle of possibilities that wait to be developed and cultivated."
If so, the students were right in their willingness to confront someone voicing prejudice, if the offender is capable of change. The alternative is to remain silent, and that, too, can have consequences. The Stanford psychologists begin their report with a quote from Martin Luther King.
"Our lives begin to end the moment we become silent about things that matter."