Friday, May 17, 2013

Dimensions Accustomed To Calculate Prejudice

Measurements Used to Calculate Prejudice

When the woman in an adjoining cubicle announced, "I Jewed him down and got a great price," one of her neighbor's hot buttons was triggered, and she felt compelled to disrupt her story with a lecture on noun and verb usage. That the woman described money she saved on the sari she would wear at her Hindu wedding reveals the irony and depth of prejudice that exists: A misogynistic comment here. A racial slur there. Simmering prejudice against homosexuals that leak from an off-color joke. Think you're immune to prejudice? Not so fast. See if you feel the same way about your biases after you read this article.


The human race has never experienced a shortage of groups hating other groups, just because members shared ethnic, religious, nationality or sexual bonds. About 5,000 years ago, Jews escaped slavery in Egypt. About 2,000 years ago, Christians were persecuted and killed for following the gospel of Jesus. Society hasn't learned much since then if you take into account the Holocaust, African-American lynchings in the American South, apartheid in Africa and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

What Drives Prejudice?

Fear is the big motivator; fear of the unknown, of people perceived as "foreign" based on the way they speak, act or behave. That stated, the underlying cause of prejudice, as social scientists investigating the phenomenon agree, is really about the way humans are reared and taught, what they hear and see. When Rodgers and Hammerstein composed their libretto for the award-winning play "South Pacific," they captured the dilemma in a song performed by a mixed race couple: "You have to be taught to hate," they sing. "You have to be carefully taught."

The Bogardus Scale

As early as 1925, scientists were plumbing the depths of society's collective psyche in an effort to figure out measure prejudice. Pioneer researcher Emory Bogardus developed the first widely used measurement tool, a seven-point scale that measures how subjects respond to interacting with those of other races. Called a "Social Distance Scale" and calculated using responses that range from strongly approve to strongly disapprove, the Bogardus scale is still used to evaluate racial prejudices today.

Measurement Advances

Calculating prejudice may not have been a priority for social scientists during the Great Depression and World War II, but a few tenacious researchers carried the banner. In 1934, LaPiere proved that people don't necessarily act the way they believed they would when interacting with minority groups. Around 10 years later, "The Authoritarian Personality," a book featuring a test that measured reaction to ethnic epithets, was lauded by social scientists as being cutting-edge and accurate. Using four scales to explore prejudice, the test proved so reliable, administrators were able to pick up imperceptible biases rarely found in previous surveys.

Contemporary Measurement Tools

When Gordon Allport wrote "The Nature of Prejudice," he relied on measurement scales that produced accurate data for much of the 20th century, but those criteria are no longer valid. People have become savvy test-takers. In a nutshell, we have learned answer questions in ways that obscure our prejudices, rendering even benchmark tests like the Bogardus Scale and Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory (MMPI) ineffective. That's why contemporary measurement tools have shifted from writing instruments to MRIs. These days, brain scans and other bio-diagnostic tools are considered the only sure way of measuring biases and prejudices accurately.

The Harvard Test

Among landmark studies conducted at Harvard is an instrument that measures and calculates prejudice. Originally an internal lab experiment posted online in 1998, the test went viral over time with 2.5 million people responding. Test results continue to be funneled into the project, and you can add to the data by taking the test, simply by visiting the website listed below. Be forewarned: There's a disclaimer at the beginning of the inquiry. Be prepared to discover deeper biases than you might like to admit.

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