Wellesley Professor’s Research Has ‘Profound Implications’ for Understanding Prejudice, Wrote Nationally Syndicated Columnist Leonard Pitts
Angela Bahns, assistant professor of psychology, was recently interviewed by nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. about her research on prejudice and bias. Pitts, who writes for the Miami Herald and is a respected writer on race, turned to Bahns' study of threat perception to help him understand how pre-existing bias may cause people to feel threatened. Pitts wrote, "It's a question with profound implications in a nation grappling with what has come to seem an endless cycle of police brutality against unarmed African-American men, women and children." His column on Bahns' research was published by dozens of newspapers across the country.
In the column, Pitts described Bahns' research and how he sees it applying to race relations. He explains how Bahns "conditioned test subjects to feel negatively toward countries about which they’d previously had neutral feelings…." She told him "when groups were associated with negative emotion, they came to be perceived as more threatening in the absence of any information about what the people are like objectively." Her research, she said, turns the prevailing theory—that prejudice arises from threat—on its head.
Pitts also used Bahns' research to help in answering the question of just what can be done. He wrote, "Bahns' research suggests that one answer might be to encourage police departments to incorporate bias training in their regimens." Bahns told him, however, that "before any change can happen, the first step…is that the perceivers—in this case, the white perceivers, or police officers—have to be open to admitting that they might be influenced by bias. She said, "We're all prejudiced, and until we admit that, we're not going to get anywhere in terms of reducing its effects."
There is, of course, resistance to the idea that everyone has a prejudice to overcome. “Everyone’s motivated to see themselves in a positive light,” she said. In an email she added, “I hope that my research offers a new perspective to the national conversation on race—one that challenges people to be more open to the idea that they might be prejudiced, even despite consciously held egalitarian beliefs."
"The primary message I hope readers of the column will take away is that threat perception is a subjective process," Bahns noted in her email. In other words, "Threat can be constructed as a post-hoc explanation for prejudice rather than forming the source of the prejudice itself." Bahns told Pitts the implications for the research will require a reversal in how people think about prejudice. She explained, "[The idea] that threat causes prejudice assumes that something about them —the out group—makes them threatening rather than assuming there’s something about us that makes us see them that way."
When asked about if her research might be applied to how some segments of our society are perceiving Syrian refugees in recent weeks, Bahns wrote that she believes that "People's opposition to having the refugees come to the U.S. is largely rooted in fear, and my research suggests that one way for people to make sense of their fear is to see the refugees as threatening. It's important to recognize, however, that the threat may not be real; claiming the refugees pose a threat to our safety may just be a convenient (and convincing) excuse for why many people don't want them here."
As part of Wellesley's Op-Ed Project, Bahns previously penned an opinion piece about her findings for the National Journal. The research on which she based the opinion piece, and that she discussed with Pitts, was published earlier this year in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. Salon magazine has also covered Bahns' findings.