Interview with Dr. Sven van de Wetering on the IAT, Prejudice, Xenophobia, and Canada

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Sven van de Wetering was the head of psychology at the University of the Fraser Valley and is a now an associate professor in the same department. He is on the Advisory Board of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

Dr. van de Wetering earned his BSc in Biology at The University of British Columbia, and Bachelors of Arts in Psychology at Concordia University, Master of Arts, and Ph.D. in Psychology from Simon Fraser University.

His research interest lies in “conservation psychology, lay conceptions of evil, relationships between personality variables and political attitudes.” We have been conducting an ongoing series on the epistemological and philosophical foundations of psychology with the current sessions here, here, here, and here.

Here we explore the Implicit Association Test, reduction of prejudice and xenophobia in societies, non-null xenophobic societies, and fraught worldview interactions in Canada.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As an expert in social psychology, some ideas emerge in the public conversation around subject matter related to the professional peer-reviewed literature of social psychologists. I want to focus, today, on the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

Many utilize the findings to bolster well-meaning programs to reduce implicit bias, not simply explicit bias. Does the evidence of Implicit Association sufficiently endorse the implementation of policies and programs in different areas of professional life of the Canadian public?

Dr. Sven van de Wetering: More than 20 years after the IAT was first developed, it is still not entirely clear what it measures. The thinking behind it is noble: The idea is that asking people explicitly about their prejudices leads to biased results because there is a social stigma attached to uttering racist/sexist/homophobic opinions.

Because most people want to avoid that stigma, they will tend to respond in a less racist/sexist/homophobic manner than they would if that social stigma did not exist. The IAT is thought of by many people as a way of circumventing the tendency toward socially desirable responding to surveys.

If it were true, it would be wonderful, but that does not appear to be what the IAT actually does. In most circumstances, the IAT does an even worse job of predicting behaviour than an explicit attitude survey does, which suggests that whatever it is that the IAT measures, it is probably not the person’s “true” attitudes, if such a thing even exists.

I’m not as up on the literature on the IAT as I would like to be, but the most compelling account I have seen of what it is that the IAT actually measures states that these so called “implicit attitudes” are nothing more than a statistical aggregate of all the associations one has been exposed to with a concept.

So, if one has seen African-American people portrayed in a negative light more frequently than one has seen European-American people so portrayed, the IAT will find an implicit prejudice against black people, regardless of whether one actually believes the portrayals.

The fact that most people, including many African-American people, appear to have negative implicit attitudes toward African-Americans as measured on the IAT, or that the same is true of homosexual people, overweight people, old people, etc. suggests that typical portrayals of members of stigmatized groups still tend to be more negative than portrayals of non-stigmatized groups.

I think that is unfortunate. On the other hand, I’m not sure that specifically targeting people’s implicit attitudes will be all that helpful. If organizations are finding that their employees are being rude or insensitive to members of stigmatized minorities, it might be more effective to target the offending behaviours directly instead of trying to modify performance on the IAT, which is probably easier to do.

Modifying performance on the IAT is not as helpful because those “implicit attitudes” do not, in many cases, drive the offending behaviours.

Jacobsen: In terms of psychological phenomena, and the reduction of prejudice in large groups including societies, what tends to reduce the degree of xenophobia in societies?

van de Wetering: I’ve been trying to figure that out for about 25 years, and still don’t claim to know what’s going on. Exposure to a great variety of people is usually helpful, especially if that contact is carried out under conditions of equal status, in pursuit of common goals, under fairly enjoyable circumstances, and in situations that allow people to get to know each other reasonably well.

Such contact is often hard to arrange, but I never cease to be amazed by the recurring tendency for xenophobic attitudes to be strongest in areas where there are very few members of minority groups around to be prejudiced against.

Beyond this, xenophobic attitudes tend to be activated by disorder and social threat. When people perceive the social environment as chaotic and uncertain, when they perceive a breakdown of the moral norms that help structure their lives, then people start to become more hostile to outsiders and stigmatized minorities.

I still wonder how much of the worldwide turn toward right-wing populism is driven by things like the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I like to tell people that cows, hot dogs, and falling television sets all kill more people in North America than terrorists do.

The point of my telling this to people is that this belief in massive, inimical forces sitting on the fringes of North American society plotting our downfall is so powerful for many people that it seems to change their whole worldview and activate the little seed of xenophobia that is probably buried in all of us.

Violent crime is still on the wane, terrorists kill very few people compared to even very banal risks that most people don’t worry much about, and yet the terrorists and criminals influence our society in a way that those other risks do not. People think of terrorist acts as acts of war; I try to reframe them as public relations stunts. I’m fighting an uphill battle, though.

Given the literature on xenophobia, the actual answer to your question is probably that people will become less xenophobic if they are exposed to diversity, and if they perceive their society as peaceful, prosperous, and moral.

The problem, of course, is that there is always crime and deviance, and even if rates of crime and deviance are going down, any deviant act can be sensationalized.

There are powerful incentives to perpetrate such sensationalism, with the result that public perceptions of disorder are not very strongly correlated with actual disorder. Not an easy problem to fix, especially if you believe in free speech (which I do).

Jacobsen: Has there ever been a null xenophobia society? What have been cases in history of, apparently, optimized xenophobia, and explicit and implicit bias?

van de Wetering: I don’t think there ever has been a null xenophobia society. Every once in a while, someone claims that a certain society has no xenophobia. When I do a little digging, it doesn’t take me very long to find out that claims of the lack of xenophobia are greatly exaggerated.

On many measures, much of Canada looks to be pretty low on xenophobia. Despite that, it’s easy to find cases of racist epithets, discrimination, hate crimes, and widespread implicit bias. I sometimes wonder if xenophobia is like temperature; you can try to drive it down, but the lower you get, the harder it gets to get lower it more, and you can never reach absolute zero.

Jacobsen: Are the interactions between religious and non-religious people in Canada immune from the forms of xenophobia seen in history and in other societies?

van de Wetering: I actually think the relations between religious and non-religious people are somewhat fraught in Canada. We have norms that more or less forbid the discussion of religion in a wide range of contexts, and that keeps the tension under the surface.

As a university professor, I find it very striking how hard it is for my students to admit to having religious beliefs. I’m sure many of them do; I teach in a so-called Bible belt. It seems to me that what we have is something like the arrangement we have with smoking.

It looks like we have no smoking on campus because smoking on campus is forbidden, and smokers therefore take their cigarettes elsewhere. Similarly, it looks like we have no highly religious people on campus, because strong expressions of religious fervour are non-normative, so the religious people take their fervour elsewhere.

This state of affairs is conducive to superficial peace, but not to a deep mutual understanding between more secular and more religious people. Maybe that is the best we can achieve, but it doesn’t look to me like an absence of xenophobia.

Jacobsen: If you could build policy to reduce prejudice in Canadian society, and if you could recommend this to the political, policy-making, and decision-making classes in Canada, what form would the policy take provincially-territorially and federally?

van de Wetering: I honestly think most governments in English Canada are doing fairly well. I approve of official multiculturalism, and think that keeping a lid on really virulent hate speech while still avoiding stronger restrictions on free speech is probably about the right balance to strike.

I would probably let in more refugees than Trudeau has done, but not a lot more; the backlash that Angela Merkel provoked by letting in really large numbers of refugees will probably prove, in hindsight, to have been a counterproductive consequence of her actions.

It’s enough to make me cry, because I thought her intentions were very noble, but political limitations on what is possible are very real and difficult to circumvent. Because we are far from most of the trouble spots of the world, we have a fairly easy time vetting our immigrants. We can afford to be more generous than we are, but not without limit.

The one area where we are really falling down in reducing prejudice is in our dealings with our First Nations. After our government spent decades trying to destroy their culture, we are finding that people whose own cultures have been severely damaged but who also sometimes have trouble participating fully in ours (if they want to) will often not do very well.

I am hesitant to propose concrete programs to deal with this problem; I don’t think paternalistic white men should be taking the lead in dealing with this problem. I do think more funding needs to be made available to First Nations to assist them in helping themselves.

Jacobsen: What firmly does reduce prejudice, xenophobia, bias, and so on? What firmly does not?

van de Wetering: I don’t think there is a magic bullet that will reduce prejudice and xenophobia in all circumstances. Laws against discrimination are a good idea in societies where discrimination is open and above board.

Once those laws have taken effect and been reasonably well enforced, unofficial discrimination goes underground and becomes much harder to prove in a court of law. The temptation then is to enact still stronger anti-discrimination laws and to enforce them still more vigorously.

At some point, I suspect that that strategy reaches a point of severely diminishing returns, and the costs and the threat of backlash are not adequately compensated by the small decrease in discrimination one is able to achieve by those means. At that point, other strategies may become necessary.

I am wondering if the #MeToo movement is pointing the way. The laws against sexual assault are already on the books, and they are even sometimes enforced. The issue is now that so many cases are not reported, and therefore not dealt with.

The #MeToo movement aims to change the informal norms surrounding the making of formal complaints of behaviour that is already illegal. Some sort of similar strategy might make sense in other domains of discrimination.

There are a couple of difficulties involved in trying to reduce prejudice. One of them is inherent in any form of social action: Social action differs from non-social action in that the objects being acted on (other people) are not some inert objects that passively accept the actions one undertakes, but are instead social actors like oneself, with their own goals and strategies.

Even as you are trying to persuade them to let go of their prejudiced ways, they are trying to persuade you to defend the integrity of your shared culture by stemming the tide of immigrants they believe are threatening it.

Related to this is a special difficulty specifically related to reducing prejudice: because people will resist one’s efforts, and even undertake active counter-efforts, it is often easy to see them as bad guys.

The problem here is that the world is not divided into bad people who are prejudiced and good people who are not. Instead, the world is full of people, all of whom can be seduced by the good guy/bad guy narrative that brings such uplifting feelings of moral clarity and self-righteousness.

Once one decides that a certain category of people is the enemy, one has begun to be seduced by that narrative, the very narrative one is angry at the opponent for having fallen prey to.

I have met people who say they would feel very comfortable sitting down and eating a meal with a person who was transsexual, or a Syrian Muslim, or indeed a member of virtually any stigmatized group one would care to name, but who also say they would not be willing to talk with someone who had voted for Donald Trump.

To me that moment of moral clarity is the moment of downfall; one is just as big of a bigot as the person one is angry at, only the identity of the stigmatized groups has changed.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Sven. 

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