A series of studies has revealed a link between prejudice and the biased perception of hate crimes. This bias appears to be motivated by feeling disempowered in society and by a desire to frame one’s own group as the victim. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Perpetrators of hate crimes often proclaim themselves to be acting in protection of a certain group — and they perceive members of this group to be sympathizing with their cause. Researchers Pontus Leander of the University of Groningen and his team came up with an interesting question.
“If perpetrators are motivated by perceived social support to engage in intergroup conflict, a key question is whether there are, indeed, members of the public who sympathize with, or at least ‘understand,’ the perpetrator’s cause,” Leander and colleagues wrote in their study. “If such sympathizers exist, it would be useful to know what motivates them and how they express their support.”
The researchers wanted to explore the process by which members of Western culture might rationalize hate crimes. They specifically wanted to explore whether prejudice would lead to biased perceptions of hate crimes depending on the crime’s target group.
“Domestic extremism is on the rise and we wanted to know how public support for it might manifest,” Leander told PsyPost. “Given that there are strong social norms against bigotry and violence, we assumed that sympathy for a controversial cause would be observable indirectly: not in what people endorse, but in what they deny or refuse to endorse.”
The researchers conducted several surveys assessing citizens’ perceptions of mass shootings in the United States, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. The surveys measured various attitudes, including prejudice, to examine how individual characteristics might influence people’s conceptions of the shootings as hate crimes.
First, a survey questioned US adults about the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. The respondents were asked to indicate what they believed had motivated the gunman to act. Of note, the gunman had declared anti-Semitic beliefs prior to the attack.
Subjects rated eight motives, but researchers were specifically interested in responses to the item, “Hatred of others; prejudice.” The researchers found that the respondents who held anti-Semitic beliefs themselves were less vehement in attributing the synagogue shooting to prejudice. It was also found that subjects’ disempowerment indirectly predicted their perceptions of the hate crime through anti-Semitism and Christian nationalism.
Next, researchers wanted to see whether prejudice would lead people to accentuate hate crimes that target one’s own group. A survey assessed Dutch adults’ perceptions of the Utrecht tram shooting which was perpetrated by a Turkish-born immigrant. This time, subjects’ prejudice biased their hate crime perceptions in the opposite direction. Islamoprejudice positively predicted subjects’ belief that the shooting was motivated by hatred and prejudice. “Apparently, disempowered individuals emphasize hate crimes when the perpetrator is a member of a vilified minority, even though they deemphasize hate crimes when the victims are members of that minority,” the authors observed.
Another survey found evidence that such bias is motivated by symbolic concerns about supremacy and not “realistic” concerns such as job loss or heightened crime. The survey explored perceptions of the El Paso Walmart shooting perpetrated by a gunman who had previously proclaimed white nationalist and anti-Hispanic attitudes. As the researchers reported, “The disempowered were less likely to perceive the El Paso shooting to be a hate crime, and this was specifically due to heightened symbolic concerns related to group supremacy.”
The studies shed light on the reasons why people might rationalize hate crimes, suggesting that it is motivated by a desire to frame one’s group as the victim.
“Biased hate crime perceptions are not some random tendency of a disturbed few, but rather a purposive response among frustrated people who want to defend or advance an interest that happens to align with the perpetrator’s actions,” Leander said.
However, it is unclear whether “biased hate crime perceptions are limited to any one ideological wing,” he noted. “It could be a general tendency that manifests across interests and worldviews.”
“Phenomena like these can have motivational roots. People may not want to acknowledge other people’s victimhood until their own sense of victimization is acknowledged and addressed.”
The study, “Biased hate crime perceptions can reveal supremacist sympathies”, was authored by N. Pontus Leander, Jannis Kreienkamp, Maximilian Agostini, Wolfgang Stroebe, Ernestine H. Gordijn, and Arie W. Kruglanski.