Intent and Ordinary Bias: Unintended Thought and Social Motivation Create Casual Prejudice

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Abstract

Social psychologists have addressed stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination for nearly a century. Everyday prejudices first seemed to lodge in abnormal personalities, pathological bigots who were exceptional (“bad apples”), but Freudian explanations proved inadequate. Purely cognitive explanations took their place, arguing that bias inevitably results from normal processes of categorization and association, often automatic. But this so-called cognitive miser account denies the role of intent, which does influence the activation and use of stereotypes and prejudices. People are more realistically “motivated tacticians” who display more cognitive bias under particular social motivations. The author's continuum of impression formation, proceeding from initial categorization to possible moderation by motives, illustrates this view. Plausible social motives include belonging, understanding, controlling, self-enhancing, and trusting, all known to influence ordinary bias. Social neuroscience is beginning to show that motivation and cognition mix at the earliest stages of ordinary bias.

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