Prejudice. Hate. Violence.
These three elements have sparked conflict throughout the world for millennia, shaping the history of people and places as long as humans have been around. And, if recent days have taught us anything, they will not be fading anytime soon.
Psychology professor Alex Wong wants to teach his students why this is—from a scientific standpoint. In “Psychology of Prejudice, Hate, and Violence,” he and his students analyze the nature of prejudice as a basic human psychological need to generalize others in comparison to themselves, a trait that all human beings possess.
“It is an automatic process,” Wong said. “We categorize people as whether they are part of our group or not part of our group. There are many ways that we categorize people—race is one of those ways—and we do it faster than the blink of an eye.”
Wong teaches his class that as soon as someone categorizes another person as “being different” than themselves, the brain follows an entirely different pathway to how that person is perceived, how they relate to that person, and what previously learned stereotypes about race, sex, social class, etc. are applied to that person.
“People can’t help but notice [certain] qualities of somebody and then activate the stereotypes about them,” Wong said.
One example he likes to give his class is about women being highly underrepresented in orchestras. Because of gender bias and sexism, it was typical that preconceived notions of women underperforming came into play before a single note was performed.
“Women [in general] often have a decrement in having to prove their competence—competence being their level of intelligence, or their authority, or their ability to execute at a really excellent level,” Wong said. “They’re often having to prove themselves harder than men. Men are basically the default, we’ll take them at their word.”
Gender-blind auditions began in the 1970s and 1980s to increase the number of women musicians being accepted by juries—and it worked, jumping from approximately 5 percent of women in 1970 to 25 percent by 1997, and it continues to grow. Partitions prevent jurors from seeing who is auditioning, and some auditions even ask women to remove their high heels so that they can’t be heard click-clacking across the stage. Those simple changes led to men and women receiving more equal ratings, Wong said.
Obviously, there are still countless instances where prejudices greatly influence outcomes. Wong said he shares this example so students will see and understand what a difference merely eliminating the perception of gender can make—and hopes that they remember this when it comes to their own perceptions, especially since they are also subject to the perception of others as well.
Wong also connects the psychology of prejudice and discrimination to what is happening in the world today—especially as it relates to hate and violence.
“[My class] is talking about the psychological research about it, but it’s very much related to what’s currently going on,” he said.
Some of the course material focuses on how Black and white people wait at crosswalks for different lengths of time for cars to stop for them to cross, evidence of Black people experiencing lower-quality health care at every stage, a report on how Black homeowners face discrimination in housing appraisals, and a study of how AI facial recognition software can be both racist and sexist.
While research and analysis of prejudice are the core of this psychology course, Wong and his class dive deeper into how prejudice contributes to hatred and violence throughout society and its effects on personal, family, and group behavior. However, understanding the effects isn’t enough to counter hate and violence in today’s world, which is why Wong also teaches strategies for interrupting and reducing prejudicial situations.
“[Students learn] how to speak up if a situation happens, and how to do it in a non-confrontational way. They learn how to express that they don’t approve of it, and even go as far as explaining why it’s prejudice,” he said. “It’s important to make clear, especially within your social circles, that it’s something you’re not just going to tacitly condone.”
Approaching prejudice analytically allows the class to talk about racism, sexism, intersectionality, social disadvantages, etc. in a safe, inclusive environment that broaches these tough subjects with facts instead of emotions. This is key, he said, because some students have had hard experiences, while others may not have ever experienced racism or sexism and think it doesn’t exist or that everything is perfectly fine, Wong said. Focusing on facts eases apprehension to talk about these issues.
“It’s coming from a science perspective. It’s allowing you kind of a foothold into these topics, which can be so explosive for people. People often feel like it’s a dangerous topic to talk about that they don’t want to misstep, accidentally insult somebody, or come off as being racist or sexist,” Wong said. “[The course] is not about persuading students one way or another, it’s about presenting the facts about these things.”
Wong hopes that his students can take what they learn and apply it outside the classroom, he said, even if it’s just analyzing a prejudicial situation more effectively than they would have before.
“It is a class that all students should take or [at least] be offered to all students,” he said.