woman writing 'respect' on a wall

Stanford researchers found that when people felt negatively stereotyped or disrespected based on race or gender, they were more likely to engage in anti-social behaviors.

When people feel that others do not value them due to their group affiliations – like race or gender – they may be more inclined toward anti-social behavior, a new Stanford study found.

The research examined the psychological roots of anti-social attitudes and behavior, which can lead to crime, unemployment and lack of opportunity.

“This work helps us to better understand the psychological causes of social deviancy,” said Peter Belmi, a Stanford doctoral student in organizational behavior and one of the study’s co-authors.

Other co-authors include Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a graduate student in psychology; Geoffrey Cohen, a Stanford professor in education and psychology; and Margaret Neale, a Stanford professor in business. The article was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Belmi said, “When people feel that they are being viewed negatively by others simply because they belong to a particular gender, race or other group membership, they come away with the impression that others do not treat them respectfully, which in turn makes them more likely to engage in social deviance.”

For example, Belmi said, black American students may worry that they could be judged in light of negative stereotypes about their abilities. And women may worry that others think they are not capable of succeeding in areas and roles traditionally held by men.

Prior research has shown that social identity threats can undermine performance, cognitive flexibility and willpower, he noted.

Research findings

To better understand this phenomenon, the Stanford researchers recruited 1,280 participants from across the United States to answer online surveys about scenarios involving race, gender, perceptions and feelings.

In one study, the researchers asked students whether they feel they are being negatively stereotyped in school. For example, they were asked to rate their agreement with the statement, “At school, I worry that people will draw conclusions about me, based on what they think about my racial group.”

Then, the researchers asked students whether they felt respected in school, and how much they have engaged in delinquent behaviors over the past year, such as cheating, skipping classes or doing something that could have gotten them in trouble with the police.

The study found connections between when people felt negatively stereotyped or disrespected at school and their propensity for delinquent behaviors.

In another study, the researchers asked black Americans to imagine that their manager made a racist remark about the intelligence of black Americans.

Black participants who imagined having a racist boss indicated that they would be far more likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors – such as wasting their employer’s supplies or badmouthing the company to others.

In another study, the researchers asked female participants to imagine that they faced the possibility of being denied a promotion either because their boss didn’t think a woman was suitable for a leadership position or because their personality wasn’t suitable for the job.

The results showed that women who faced the prospect of being denied a promotion on the basis of their gender were more likely to say they would engage in counterproductive activities – such as working incorrectly on purpose, starting rumors or ignoring co-workers who need help.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that this effect may occur even for members of historically non-stigmatized groups, such as white Americans.

For example, white participants who recalled an episode in their life when they were devalued because of their race, gender or religious membership were more likely to perceive and expect disrespectful treatment – and cheat – than did white participants who recalled a time when they simply did not get want they wanted.

“For many, if not most people, the experience of being devalued simply because of membership to a particular group can elicit feelings of disrespect and trigger social deviancy,” the researchers wrote.

Interventions and implications

Threats to social identity can harm people’s prospects for achieving success in work, school and society, the researchers said.

For instance, students may be more likely to engage in delinquent behavior in school if they believe that their teachers and school authorities view them simply through the lens of a negative stereotype.

“Or, people may feel compelled to retaliate if they believe that they have been unfairly passed over for a promotion simply because of their gender or race,” Barragan said.

He added: “Crime, delinquency, substance abuse and distrust toward institutions and authorities are some examples of social deviancy that present significant problems and challenges for society.

“This means being aware of our biases and making sure that all people have equal opportunity in everyday life.”

Media Contacts

Peter Belmi, Stanford Graduate School of Business: pbelmi@stanford.edu
Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, Psychology: (562) 202-8201, cortes@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu