The Double Edged Passion

In 1997 there was, at one large Midwestern university, a sizable population of Jewish women from Long Island and New York, who were strongly and openly stereotyped as "JAPs" - prissy, fussy, "Jewish American Princesses". Recognizing this, Steven Fein of Williams College and Steven Spencer of the University of Waterloo presented students there with the résumé and photo of a job candidate, whom they were able to intimate, via subtle alterations of her name, hair style, activities, and affiliations, was either Jewish ('Julie Goldberg', wore a star of David, volunteered for Jewish charities, etc), or not ('Maria D'Agostino', wore a crucifix, etc.). They then had people rate how nice a person Julie/Maria was, and whether to recommend her for a job.

Before people completed this task, though, they were made to feel bad. The researchers gave everybody impossibly hard logic puzzles, telling them that it was an important and very widely used IQ test. The hapless test-takers, no doubt already rattled, were then told that they had scored very badly (obviously they were told the truth and apologized to before they left the lab). The researchers knew from previous studies that when people have been put through this type of wringer they are especially likely to lash out at unpopular groups, and that's exactly what happened this time too. JAP Julie was given much worse reviews than her (otherwise identical) alter ego Maria.

Interestingly enough, dumping on the Jewish girl seemed to cause people's self-esteem to recover from the humiliation of the impossible IQ test. The more negatively test-takers rated "Julie Goldberg", the closer they returned to their initial baseline of self-esteem. Expressing prejudice actually restored their temporarily dented feelings of self worth. These participants would doubtless have recovered anyway, but they used prejudice as a cruel shortcut back to equanimity. The philosophy seemed to be: "if life hands you lemons, pelt them at someone until you feel better".

Recall Matthew Shepard, beaten to death by a pair of homophobic Wyomingites (State motto: "Equality")? His assailants, perhaps suffering the ill effects of a cultural squeamishness about gays, may have felt anxious. Apparently lacking the sense to see this as their own problem, they appear to have indulged in hateful action to make themselves feel better. Homophobia, then, might offer both feelings of threat and a nasty shortcut to alleviate it. The inbuilt cure is worse than the original disease.

On a more prosocial note, the boys at Sherif's camp might have used prejudice not to feel better, but to pull their groups closer together. It makes sense if you think about it. Humans have clumped together since prehistoric times for protection, and that impulse still runs strong in us, especially when we’re faced with a threat. When the United States was attacked on 9/11, there was an immediate and enormous pulling together, as people turned to each other for support. The same community bonding happened in World War II when London was blitzed, and seems to happen all too often in the Middle East as its crises come and go.

There's a twisted yet compelling logic which says that if people pull together in face of an enemy, and if pulling together is what you want, then what you really need is an enemy. When the Rattlers and Eagles first started disparaging each other, believe it or not, what they might have been trying to do was make their group more cohesive.

Why We Think We Hate

Imagine talking to one of Sherif's campers. He could probably tell you with great authority that Eagles are jerks, liars, and cheats. He would tell you that they are stupid and tricky, blithe to the contradiction between those two things. Furthermore, he would tell you (as 12 year-olds are wont), that Eagles are smelly. If some egg-head scientist interrupted that this was all really about realistic threat and attempts at group cohesion, the Rattler would probably add some choice words about the scientist too. Eagles are stupid, end of conversation.
"How do you KNOW they are stupid," the scientist might ask?

"Easy," the Rattler would say, "because they are." It's the Tupac hypothesis of prejudice; "That's just the way it is."

The egg-headed scientist would be left to claim that the Rattler just doesn’t have mental access into why he started thinking such nefarious things about Rattlers. She would be on strong ground with his claim, too. Perhaps the best illustration is with split brain patients, who have had the connection between the two halves of their brain literally chopped out (no, psychologists aren't total sadists; this was done as an early treatment for epilepsy). With these patients, you can tell one side of their brain to do something, such as stand up, and often they will do so. If you ask them why they leapt to their feet, the other side of their brain, not knowing why, will just make a reason up. "There was a draft," the person might report. "Why did I laugh? It's just a funny machine you’ve got me looking at here." Psychologists call this confabulation.