4.5 Personality Psychology in Action

Applying Personality Psychology to Explain Prejudice

We will now look in some more detail at how personality can help explain and predict how people think, feel and behave in conflict situations. As an example, we will consider how two of the major approaches to personality would explain a phenomenon that frequently contributes to and/or is further fuelled by conflict situations: prejudice. Prejudice can be defined as “negative affective feelings towards certain people based on them being members of a certain group” (Kassin et al., 2020, p. 142). Prejudice is closely linked to stereotypes and discrimination, which also frequently contribute to conflict and conflict escalation.

Figure 4.5.1. “Us and Them” by Keira McPhee used under CC BY 2.0 licence

in the next chapter (5.5) you will learn more about why people in general may develop prejudice. In this chapter, we will look at why certain kinds of people may be more likely to hold prejudice and stereotypes than others by using two approaches to personality to explain the origins of prejudice. This exercise is meant to give you an idea of how you may use findings from personality psychology research to investigate individual differences in other phenomena (including behaviours, feelings and thoughts) that relate to conflict.

As you may have guessed, personality psychologists assume that prejudice originates from people’s personalities, rather than from situations, and focus on investigating individual differences in prejudice (Ekehammar & Akrami, 2007; Pruysers, 2020; Sibley & Duckitt, 2008). Different approaches to personality psychology provide different explanations for how personality may cause prejudice. We will start with the trait approach.

The Trait Approach and Prejudice

As you have previously learned, the trait approach views personality as a unique combination of traits that shape a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (McAdams, 2009). Trait theorists assume that certain traits make general prejudicial attitudes more likely, which again may promote prejudice against specific groups of people (Carlson et al., 2019).  Trait researchers presume that specific traits can predict prejudice, which is widely accepted and supported by research (Carlson et al., 2019; Ekehammar & Akrami, 2003, 2007; Sibley & Duckitt, 2008). Research has also shown that prejudice against one group of people makes it more likely that a person is also prejudiced against other groups of people, supporting the idea that prejudice originates to some extent from personality (Ekehammar & Akrami, 2007). For example, numerous studies have found that high levels of right-wing authoritarianism (RWO) and social-dominance orientation (SDO), which trait researchers regard as traits, predict general prejudice as well as specific prejudice against groups like refugees (Allport, 1954; Anderson & Ferguson, 2018; Cowling et al., 2019; Ekehammar & Akrami, 2007; Haslam & Holland, 2012; Sibley & Duckitt, 2008).

Research on the Big 5 indicates that lower levels of Agreeableness and Openness to Experience, and higher levels of Extroversion and Conscientiousness are associated with greater prejudicial attitudes (Carlson et al., 2019; Ekehammar & Akrami, 2003; Hodson & Dhont, 2015). Research has also found a positive correlation between the Dark Triad traits, including narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and prejudice (Żemojtel-Piotrowska et al., 2020). While this research supports the idea that certain characteristics influence prejudice, some researchers have concluded that prejudice is a distinct personality trait in its own right (Allport, 1954; Ekehammar & Akrami, 2003).

We are concerned not only with the analysis of why conflict occurs and escalates but also how we can manage it. Let’s see what we can learn from the above analysis of prejudice based on people’s personality traits. As we noted earlier, studies support that personality generally influences prejudice. However, the trait approach neglects subjective experiences of people and situations as determinants of prejudice. Furthermore, the trait approach fails to inform interventions to reduce prejudicial attitudes and behaviours. If prejudice is viewed as determined by people’s traits, which are thought to be innate and relatively stable across situations and time, it appears unlikely that people’s prejudicial attitudes can be changed.

This is a somewhat gloomy assumption, which would leave little hope that those conflicts that are fuelled by parties’ prejudice can be managed by working with people’s attitudes. Other approaches to personality place greater importance on people’s agency and ability to change. So let’s now consider the cognitive approach and see how it would explain prejudice.

The Cognitive Approach and Prejudice

As previously noted, the cognitive approach focuses on the individual ways in which people process information, including how they notice factors in their environment and react to them (Burger, 2019). The cognitive approach can help explain how individual differences in information processing can influence prejudicial attitudes.

As you have already learned above, Kelly (1991; 2001) proposed that people use a unique set of personal constructs to interpret and predict their environment. An individual’s construct system influences which characteristics of refugees a person notices when processing information about relevant events. Research suggests that prejudice against refugees is strongly influenced by perceptions of threats, including perceived group differences in morals, values, and beliefs (Bianco et al., 2021; Cowling et al., 2019; Murašovs et al., 2016; Schweitzer et al., 2005). People who utilise constructs that focus on morals, values, and beliefs and that have a narrow “range of convenience” – as you learned above, such constructs typically use bipolar characteristics and allow for little variation (McAdams, 2009) – may be likely to evaluate international refugees as fundamentally different and threatening, which may increase prejudicial attitudes. If these constructs represent core or impermeable constructs, which are difficult to change, individual prejudice is likely to persist (Kelly, 1991; 2001).

Research has found that negative attitudes towards refugees are frequently shaped by polarising information distributed by mass media and populist politicians, and much less by personal encounters with refugees (Cowling et al., 2019; Murašovs et al., 2016). Processing such polarising and populist information is likely to further foster prejudice by increasing a person’s focus on those constructs that evaluate refugees as different and threatening.

Research has identified negative stereotypes of outgroup members as a specific type of threat affecting prejudice (Schweitzer et al., 2005). Kelly’s (1991; 2001) theory can help explain individual differences in stereotypical views. He identified “constellatory constructs”, which refer to the process of ascribing several characteristics to a person based on one variable. People who frequently rely on constellatory constructs are susceptible to forming stereotypes.

As you have learned above, the cognitive approach also considers phenomena like cognitive complexity, integrative complexity, and the need for cognitive closure (NCC), and how these may influence stereotypical views (Bianco et al., 2021; Scott, 1962). Just to refresh your memory, NCC refers to a person’s aversion towards uncertainty, confusion, and ambiguity and a desire to receive definite answers to questions (Kruglanski & Fishman, 2009; Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). Research indicates that people with high NCC tend to rely on stereotypical views and schemas, which may again increase prejudicial attitudes (Bianco et al., 2021). Similarly, people with low cognitive and/or low integrative complexity are thought to hold a simpler, more undifferentiated view of their world, and may thus be likely to form stereotypical and prejudicial attitudes (Koenig & King, 1964).

Contrary to the trait approach, the cognitive approach allows for interventions that may reduce prejudicial attitudes that individuals may hold against certain groups of people. As we noted earlier, Kelly (1991; 2001) proposed that people’s construct systems are dynamic, and that people, based on ongoing experiences with their environment, continuously revise existing constructs, or form new constructs. As previously noted, many people form negative attitudes against certain groups based on information provided by mass media and politicians (Cowling et al., 2019; Murašovs et al., 2016). New experiences, like direct positive encounters between a prejudiced individual (or group) with people from the other group, might enable the formation of new constructs that reflect decreased prejudicial attitudes. This assumption is supported by the contact hypothesis”. For a practical example of how direct contact may change the cognition and feelings of conflict parties, please watch the following video [4:50] about the initiative “Seeds of Peace”.


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Neuroscience, Psychology and Conflict Management Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.