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.
"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.
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.