Mind Matters — Why Hate?

Are there ways to dismantle hate? This question was addressed recently in the American Psychological Association Monitor (January, 2018).

Social psychology research aids in identifying both the factors that incite hostility and hatred, as well as those factors which have the opposite effect. While hatred of others is not new, “identifying ways to counter hate and unite people has been given new urgency … .” the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) observes that, in the US over the past two decades, there has been a “sharp rise in hate groups”, especially since 2015.

Despite this fact, there are ways to counteract this rise. One man, Daryl Davis, has been turning this tide by quietly encountering prejudice one person at a time. His quest began in 1983 when he was a black musician in an all white bar. During a break between sets, a white man started talking and drinking with him. Then the man said that he had never done that before because he was a member of the KKK. Rather than responding fearfully, Davis was curious and asked “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” That conversation led to more conversations, to a friendship, and to the man relinquishing his KKK membership. That was the beginning of Davis’ seeking the answer to his question with over one hundred KKK members with whom he shared musical or family events. He counts two-thirds of them as having left the KKK.

What Davis’ work exemplifies, in psychological terms, is Contact Theory, developed by Gordon Allport many years ago. This theory is based on the observation that meaningful contact between two groups can “promote tolerance under certain conditions, such as having common goals.”

I saw Contact Theory at work first hand when, years ago, we hosted a nine-year-old girl from Northern Ireland in a program call Project Children. The purpose was to bring together Protestant and Catholic youngsters, who only knew hatred and violence in their strife torn country, and give them an opportunity to play together. It worked. We saw how a frightened little girl who was terrified of fireworks and swimming pools gained confidence over the summer and was able to connect to the other children with play: at parks, picnics, and all sorts of activities. Similar programs are employed with Israeli and Palestinian children.

Both adults and children overcome fear of others and prejudices when they recognize their commonalities—how they are alike rather than different. Psychologist Ervin Straub explains that “at its essence, prejudice is about believing some groups have more worth or value than others. Hostility toward a particular social group develops when that group becomes de-valued compared to others.”

Also conditions such as a “sluggish economy” can exacerbate the fear of other so that certain groups get scapegoated and blamed. For example, “the fear that immigrants will take ... jobs is an oft-repeated refrain, despite evidence that shows the economic effects of immigration are positive over all.”

Psychologist Susan Fiske relates that there are some people who are extremely tolerant of others’ differences—just as those who are “deeply prejudicial.” However, she goes on to say, many people exist somewhere in the “murky middle” and are extremely influenced by social norms. That is, these people’s attitudes change according to what they see as “acceptable.” Fiske says, “if we have leadership that isn’t promoting inter-group tolerance, it sets the norms for the rest of society.”

The antidote to change attitude goes back to Contact Theory. When people make meaningful connection, prejudice and threat of other dissipate. This includes working together, playing together, volunteering together. Another way to promote tolerance is through entertainment! Where people watched sitcoms that showed “diverse, yet relatable Muslim characters” psychologist Markus Brauer showed that their biases went down. My spouse and I loved to watch the Canadian TV show, “Little Mosque on the Prairie” which was about the interaction of Muslims and Christians in a little town in Western Canada. It was funny but also poignant and poked holes in everyone’s prejudices in a compassionate and caring way. We viewed it on DVD, because no American station would broadcast this great show!

We all have implicit and explicit biases. However, the more conscious we become of our connections with others, and with the humanity of us all, the less biased we will be, and the more human we become!

[Material for this article was derived from “Dismantling Hate,” by Kirsten Weir, APA Monitor on Psychology, January 2018.]