High-Social Dominance Orientation and Prejudice

It’s ironic to be starting this blog with social dominance orientation (SDO). SDO is, according to Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, and Malle (1994), “one’s degree of preference for inequality among social groups” (p. 741) or “the extent to which one desires that one’s in-group dominate and be superior to out-groups” (p. 742). A person with high SDO favors ideologies and policies that enhance hierarchy and diminish equality while those with low SDO favor ideologies and policies that diminish hierarchy and promote equality. According to Pratto et al, “SDO was strongly correlated with our anti-Black racism measure in every sample.. . .These results, using rather different racism measures, are consistent with the idea that generalized preference for group dominance drives belief in culturally specific forms of ethnic prejudice” (p. 748). Not only is SDO strongly correlated with anti-Black racism, but “group prejudice against other nations, ethnic groups, and women” (p. 748). So a person with high SDO tends to be racist, nationalistic, and sexist, thinking that some groups have more rights to resources than others.

SDO is not “interpersonal dominance,” the desire to dominate one’s social group, a misunderstanding I had until I started researching SDO in depth in preparation for this discussion. I made this mistake because it made sense to me that those who dominate their own social groups would desire their social group to dominate other groups. But however much sense this makes (or doesn’t), SDO is “independent of interpersonal dominance” and seems not to be correlated with self-esteem (Pratto et al, 1994, p. 751). In fact, people from “low-status groups” – that is, groups that are lower in the standard hierarchy – can, and do, have high SDO (Umphress, Simmons, Boswell & del Carmen Triana, 2008, p. 987).

High SDO is a personality variable that predicts a range of attitudes. I find it ironic to start this blog with SDO, a personality variable, because this blog is supposed to be on how genocide studies can be helpful to understanding and countering racism. But genocide studies basically rejects that a single personality variable can cause genocide or mass killing within a society because any population has many different personalities within it. Yet SDO is a great place for us to start because SDO is so highly predictive of prejudice.

I need to make several caveats here:

  • In using psychology to discuss race, I’m not trying to say that psychology is a neutral observer of race issues. Scholarship in general has paved the way for institutionalized racism over and over again. The discipline of psychology specifically has a racist past, as delineated with a timeline in the middle of this discussion of Psychological Perspectives on Racism by Martha Augoustinos for the Australian Psychological Society. But some contemporary psychologists study racism and prejudice with, I believe, the best of intentions.
  • By using psychological studies to discuss racism, I’m not trying to say that psychology is the only correct way to look at racism; scholarship is “correct” only until a new theory comes around to debunk the old one. I use psychology in my studies of genocide and race not because I think it’s “the one right way” but because I feel psychological studies offer a different perspective that gets me thinking. I suggest trying on these psychological ideas to see whether they give you a different perspective. But do be critical as well.
  • I am not a psychologist by training though I read a fair number of psychological studies. My PhD is in English, specifically rhetoric. My dissertation did draw on the psychology of genocide, and my committee of official readers did include an educational psychologist, but that still doesn’t make me a psychologist, so there may be nuances I don’t understand. I welcome those of you with more psychology background than I have to contribute your expertise.
  • SDO is not something we discuss so much in the psychology of genocide so I’ve read a lot about it recently. But I’m less of an expert on SDO than on other aspects of the psychology of genocide; I promise that in future blogposts I’ll stick closer to my comfort zone.

High SDO is also correlated with lower dispositional empathy and less principled moral reasoning (McFarland, 2010, p. 465). Men tend to have higher SDO than women do (Pratto et al, 1994, p. 755).

Since people vary in SDO, people vary in how they respond to ideologies that support hierarchy rather than equality. (So here you can begin to see why someone like me interested in rhetoric, or persuasion, would be interested in SDO, which helps to explain how people receive persuasive messages differently.) Interestingly, Christian Picciolini, a former member of a white-power skinhead group, explains that he was persuaded to join through the older members

appealing to my sense of pride, of being European, of being Italian. And then it would move on to instilling fear that I would lose that pride and that somebody would take that away from me if I wasn’t careful. Then it went on to name specific groups through conspiracy theories that were bent on taking that pride or that privilege away from me.

So it was the fear rhetoric. … I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did, up to now, up to what we’re seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology.

So while Picciolini claims it wasn’t the ideology of white supremacy that made him join, high SDO still seems like it was at work through this fear of being dominated by other groups. While high-SDO people may be able to justify the domination of “low-status groups” by “high-status groups,” this doesn’t necessarily mean that all high-SDO people would themselves be willing to engage in violence. There’s definitely more going on in violent white supremacy groups than high SDO.

Social dominance of one’s group seems important in rather ordinary features of human life like cross-town rivalries that are usually promoted in high school football, the profound attachment some fans have for their teams, and my-country-is-the-best claims. Some institutions and organizations promote hierarchies while others do not as well; in fact, one of the claims of the original article I quoted above (Pratto et al) posits that people high in SDO work or belong to hierarchy-enhancing institutions and organizations while people low in SDO work or belong to hierarchy-attenuating institutions and organizations. That’s an interesting place to start some self-reflection. What does your belonging to or working at various institutions and organizations say about you and your approach to social equality – or hierarchy – between groups?

For example, I’ve spent the last nine years in academia. Whether a university as a whole ultimately supports or reduces societal hierarchy probably depends on the individual commitments of the institution to underserved groups, but there are certainly established hierarchies and competing groups within the university system.

As I think about SDO in my own background and experience, SDO is hard for me to relate to (another irony to starting this blog about it). Partly this may be because I’m textbook low SDO as a female with high empathy who supports universal human rights. (There’s a study by McFarland and Mathews on this topic I haven’t been able to get yet.) And I’ve never been a big fan of things like team sports, for example. In high school when we had Homecoming and the official cross-town rival game, I was just never interested in it nor did I particularly believe in the rivalry. I enjoyed watching Mary Lou Retton get the gold in the Women’s All-Around Gymnastics at the Summer Olympics in 1984, but it didn’t make me feel pro-American.

But another difficulty I have is that SDO as the means to prejudice suggests that high-SDO people really see different ethnic groups as separate and competing. This might be my own background at work. I grew up describing myself as half-Jewish; my best friend was half-black. Maybe these groups that others see as very distinct seem more fluid to me because of my mixed background. I can’t really remember many times where group-based dominance was important – especially as I was conscious at least somewhat of being a minority (or half-minority) as a member of a Jewish family. I remember celebrating Jewishness at times, but nothing about dominating other social groups as if we had more rights to resources than others.

Rather, I grew up with the idea that it was unacceptable to make disparaging comments about other people on the basis of race or ethnicity. My grandmother was a bilingual educator and would not stand for any of the racism typical of their community (which was a sundown town, a community where the understanding, and even some of the ordinances, said that black people had to be out of the community after dark) in my mother when she was growing up. My mother passed down these antiracist sentiments, but that doesn’t mean I had much of an education about African American history or that I grew up with a commitment to antiracism. Instead I had the idea that racism and intolerance was caused by ignorance, and society would naturally grow out of it, which also meant that there was little that we, or anyone, needed to do. So I was shocked, in high school, when the story that a parent, having gotten into a car accident in the crush of traffic around the high school, launched into an anti-Asian rant circulated around our community. A kid could be that stupid, maybe. I’d already heard anti-Semitic remarks from adolescents by then. But a parent? This began to shake my out of my daze. This probably begins to account for why I was so surprised at the emboldening of so much racism in the US recently. I realize now some of the more virulent racism just went underground; some racism I must have missed or dismissed as something on the way out. I don’t want to be so blind ever again.

But whatever ideas I grew up with about equality and its inevitability were deeply complicated by the way race and class intersect. When I was in elementary school, my mother went to great lengths – putting  me in private school and then another school district –  to ensure that I wouldn’t be bussed to South-Central Los Angeles during the age of busing in late 1970s-early 1980s in Los Angeles Unified School District. We moved out of LA Unified altogether in 1981, a move probably also informed by my mother’s concern about desegregation busing. So while it’s nice and simple to think of my family as less racist, certainly my family’s attitudes toward black people were more complicated.

How were you raised to think about race, ethnicity, and diversity issues? Did you, like me, naively think that society would grow out of intolerance and bigotry? Even today, I know college students who insist racism is a generational issue, assured that once the “older generation” dies out, so will racism.  This attitude also presumes that they themselves are not racist (as I presumed that I wasn’t racist) and that they haven’t picked up racist attitudes from society (as I also presumed I didn’t). How can we convince people that we may be able to educate people out of racism and intolerance, but such progress is not going to happen without concerted work on ourselves and on society? Certainly, if some refuse to listen to anything because they want to be racist, because they get something out of it, because they want their group to dominate others, this progress to a nonracist society won’t occur. But if others refuse to work on themselves and society because they think they don’t have to – because they don’t believe they are  racist or because racism will naturally go away – this progress will also not occur. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem, which is why I’m excavating my attitudes about race.

As you’re reflecting on race, ethnicity, and social dominance orientation in your background, consider whether you recognize any markers of high SDO in yourself or your family members. If you suspect that your family members did have high SDO or felt entitled to dominate a particular group, how did they talk about that “low-status” group?

For example, my grandfather was a German Jew who emigrated to Palestine with Youth Aliyah, fought in the British Air Force and the Israeli Army, but ultimately grew disenchanted with early Israel and moved to the United States. He often spoke of Israel at family events, but in looking back I realize he didn’t talk about the Palestinians, the “lower-status group” in this situation, except maybe the PLO and only with the kind of hush and knowing looks that a child associates with something dark, something the adults don’t want you to know about, something they are trying to protect you from. In that unthinking way, I grew up regarding Palestinians as some kind of inhuman other, people beyond understanding, who were only interested in bombing and terrorizing Israelis. (In fact, wondering why people who had experienced human rights abuses advocated abuses against other groups is how I first started in the psychology of genocide.) Why do I bring this up? Because here’s a situation of social dominance that my grandfather fully supported (high SDO, at least in this situation), and he didn’t address them as people at all. Is that because he didn’t view them as fully human? Or because he didn’t want to draw attention to their humanity because it would be more difficult to justify his attitudes that they should be forcibly moved? I can’t say. My grandfather wasn’t a very emotionally-expressive person, so it’s difficult to know whether he didn’t see their humanity or whether he did, but kept it to himself.

So how were you taught to see, or not see, certain groups? What were your family’s ideas about race and diversity? High SDO assumes a more “competitive jungle” worldview. Were you taught by your parents, community, or social group that the world is a competitive jungle?  What kinds of stories or myths suggested a dog-eat-dog world? Were there particular situations or groups you were in where it was important that your group come out on top? How did those groups view “low-status” groups? Racial minorities?

Work on SDO has proliferated since these ideas first came out. (Many articles on SDO are available to everyone in full-text; check out Google Scholar if you’re interested.) There is certainly more to say about SDO, but this post is already long enough and, I hope, gives us a good place to start reflecting on ourselves and our society.


References Not Linked (in Imperfect APA Citation)

McFarland, Sam. (2010).“Authoritarianism, Social Dominance Orientation, and Other Roots of Generalized Prejudice.” Political Psychology 31.3. pp. 453-474.

Pratto, Felicia, James Sidanius, Lisa M. Stallworth, and Bertram F. Malle. (1994).           Social Dominance Orientation: A Personality Variable Predicting Social and Political Attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67.4. pp. 741-763.

Umphress, Elizabeth E., Aneika L. Simmons, Wendy R. Boswell and Maria del Carmen Triana. (2008). “Managing Discrimination in Selection: The Influence of Directives of an Authority and Social Dominance Orientation.” Journal of Applied Psychology 93:5. pp. 982-993.

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