Findings published in the journal Nature Communications suggest that acts of hate are driven by group preservation beliefs and by the belief that an outgroup has done something morally wrong. People with higher group preservation beliefs were more likely to feel that acts of prejudice were justified, and this was mediated by the perception that the outgroup had committed moral wrongdoing.
Evidence suggests that hate crimes are on the rise in the United States and that the COVID-19 pandemic may have made matters worse. These acts, which scholars refer to as extreme behavioral expressions of prejudice (EBEPs), undoubtedly have a negative psychological impact on targeted communities. Study authors Morteza Dehghani and his team conducted a series of studies to explore the motivations that drive people to engage in EBEPs.
“I am interested in how extreme forms of morality can lead to radical intentions. I have looked at this problem through the lens of sacred values and negotiations, as well moralization on social media and off-line violence,” said Dehghani, an associate professor at the University of Southern California.
“The increasing rate of hate speech and hate crimes against marginalized populations in the United States have prompted questions about why, when, and where such behaviors tend to occur. Further, I think understanding the role of group-based morality in expression of these types of behavior is vital for trying to mitigate them.”
Their research was based on an approach they call the moralized threat hypothesis, which posits that acts of hate are motivated by the belief that an outgroup has committed a moral offense. The approach suggests that perpetrators of hate tend to feel morally justified, believing that hurting others is the “right” thing to do. Given the link between EBEPs and right-wing ideology, the researchers hypothesized that such acts of prejudice would be associated with values aligned with conservatism. They specifically focused on binding values, which are values that involve the preservation of ingroup loyalty and submission to authority.
A first study revealed that country-level estimates of moral values were associated with country-level hate group activity. Dehghani and his colleagues obtained data from a website that collected information on people’s moral values between 2012 to 2018. They then compared this data to the number of active hate groups during a similar time period, obtained from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). It was found that country-level estimates of binding values were able to positively predict the country-level prevalence of hate groups.
In two additional studies, the researchers distributed surveys among Americans that assessed their endorsement of binding and individualizing values and the extent that they believed that acts of hate against certain marginalized groups were justified. Study 2 revealed that people with higher binding values were more likely to feel that EBEPs against Muslim groups were justified and that this link was mediated by the extent that they felt that Muslims had done something morally wrong (spreading Islamic values in the U.S.).
Study 3 similarly revealed that people with stronger binding values were more likely to feel that EBEPs against Mexican immigrants were justified and that this link was mediated by the extent that they perceived the Mexican immigrants to be committing a moral offense (taking jobs from Americans).
A fourth study found similar results by experimentally manipulating the extent that people felt an outgroup was doing something immoral. Those who read a news story that framed a fictional outgroup called Sandirians as a high moral threat were more likely to justify acts of hate against the group compared to those who read a news story depicting them as a low moral threat. Effectively, participants who were swayed to believe that a fictional outgroup was acting immorally by taking jobs from Americans were more likely to feel that acts of hate against this outgroup were justified.
A final study revealed that the link between the justification of hate crimes and the perception that an outgroup has done something morally wrong was moderated by the endorsement of binding values, but not individualizing values that focus on personal rights. This suggests that group preservation values are a unique risk factor for believing that hate against outgroups is justified.
“In this paper, we present a program of research that suggests that acts of hate may often be best understood not just as responses to threat, but also as morally motivated behaviors grounded in people’s moral values and perceptions of moral violations,” Dehghani explained. “We demonstrate that when people participate in hate groups, they do so in counties that prioritize group-oriented values and, people who see acts of hate as more justified tend to prioritize group-oriented values.”
Overall, this set of findings point to a role of moral beliefs in the justification of acts of hate. “While much research on EBEPs has highlighted the role of specific, concrete threats, the moralized threat hypothesis offers a potential framework for understanding why people may perceive EBEPs as justified, even in the absence of an ostensible material threat,” Dehghani and his team write. “This hypothesis suggests that a person does not necessarily need to fear for their job or safety to engage in or approve of EBEPs; instead, it may be sufficient for them to simply feel a sense of moral outrage.”
But the study — like all research — include some limitations.
“This study was focused on the United States,” Dehghani noted. “Can the main findings about the link between group-level moral values and EBEPs be replicated in other cultures? We have new findings demonstrating that other cultures may not differentiate between group-level moral concerns and individual level concerns as Americans do. What moral concerns are then risk factors for EBEPs outside of the United States?”
“We went through hell with the Nature Comms’ editorial team,” Dehghani added. “We had 6 reviewers, 5 revisions and 3 editors. One of our main studies was dropped post review process because it used data from Gab. They made us drop the word ‘conservative’ from our findings and from most of the paper. You can find the original framing of the paper, along with the text analysis study of Gab, here: https://psyarxiv.com/359me/”
The study, “Investigating the role of group-based morality in extreme behavioral expressions of prejudice”, was authored by Joe Hoover, Mohammad Atari, Aida Mostafazadeh Davani, Brendan Kennedy, Gwenyth Portillo-Wightman, Leigh Yeh, and Morteza Dehghani.