A new study by researchers at Yale and at other institutes offers a potential psychological explanation for why majority group members exhibit a higher degree of bias towards bicultural group members that do not fully assimilate into the majority group.

While immigrants and minorities may feel pressure by the majority group to assimilate, they may also have a psychological need to maintain and celebrate their dual identities — this leads to a clash of expectations, according to Yale psychology and public health professor and senior author John Dovidio. In the study, which was published on Nov. 1 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers explored why this clash exists and why majority group members respond negatively to individuals with dual identities.

“Findings show that in the U.S. and elsewhere, majority groups have a preference toward immigrants and members of minority groups who give up their ethnic, racial or national identities and blend in,” Dovidio said. “But research also suggests that immigrants and minorities value their heritage and identities and suffer when they lose those connections.”

This work integrates theories from social and evolutionary psychology, according to Jonas Kunst, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale Intergroup Relations Lab and first author of the paper.

In times of shifting coalitions and threats by other groups, it is human nature to make inferences about their fellow in-group members’ loyalties that are as accurate as possible, said co-author Lotte Thomsen, psychology professor at the University of Oslo and Aarhus University.

“We adopt an error-management logic. Under threat and potential danger, erroneously assuming loyal group members to be disloyal is less costly than erroneously assuming disloyal group members to be loyal,” Kunst said. “Hence, in many situations, people may be wary of newcomers’ loyalty — just to be on the safe side.”

Dovidio added that we tend to be much more accepting of individuals we perceive to be “one of us.” Dually-identified individuals pose an uncertainty in this “us-versus-them” scheme, whereas someone who identifies with just one group — even if that group is an enemy group — poses no uncertainty. A spy, for example, would receive much more severe punishment than an enemy soldier, according to Dovidio, because a spy is deceitful and pretends to be “one of us.”

To find out whether loyalty is the driving mechanism behind bias, the team conducted five separate studies. They demonstrated that loyalty becomes more important when an individual is in the military — which is designed to protect the group against other groups — or in certain security-related occupations, including border patrol and the Secret Service, rather than in civilian jobs, such as those at libraries and at architecture firms.

One of the studies also found that direct evidence that a dually-identified individual is loyal to the majority group cancels bias against them. In the study, a Russian-American job candidate who was willing to sacrifice himself to rescue an American family faced no bias because he proved his loyalty to America.

Thomsen added that showing how other minority groups are, in fact, allies to the majority group is another way to counter bias.

The final study, which analyzed soccer fans in Germany, showed that symbolic threats are just as important as physical threats. According to Dovidio, individuals tend to look for cues of loyalty and are quick to spot apparent evidence of disloyalty — this explains people’s fixation on whether Obama wears the American flag pin.

“What’s interesting is, most Americans would say, I’m not going to dislike someone just because they’re a minority,” Dovidio said. “But that’s not what they’re thinking. What’s actually driving the dislike is the suspicion of disloyalty. There are a lot of white people who didn’t wear the American flag pin, but when Obama doesn’t wear the pin, [they would say] ‘we are not opposed to him because he’s black, we’re opposed to him because he’s not one of us, he’s not loyal to us.’”

According to Dovidio, the study is unique in that it pins down the underlying mechanism behind bias to loyalty. A common explanation for bias against immigrants, for example, is that they are “taking our jobs.” If this were truly the case, he explained, people would be more hostile to highly educated and accomplished immigrants who are more likely to “take our jobs.” But people are actually biased against immigrants regardless of their level of education.

Kunst and Thomsen agreed that the mechanism of loyalty can explain economic factors behind bias toward immigrants.

“The question is, why would people feel upset that out-group members or minorities ‘take their jobs’ rather than other in-group members [doing so],” Thomsen said. “Presumably, that is because there is an expectation of mutual cooperation within the in-group, which again brings us back to the question of loyalty — that is, whether you are a trustworthy, altruistic group member that can be counted on in times of need.”

Questions of loyalty are also often intertwined with nationalistic concerns, or the perception that immigrants are “taking over our country,” Kunst said. According to Kunst, immigrants who are seen as potentially disloyal to the country they live in may also be perceived as wanting to impose their culture on the existing national culture.

Thomsen explained that understanding these underlying mechanisms can help individuals navigate the challenges that come with having dual identities.

“I think it is easier to understand that people are worried about loyalty to their group — and that this basic psychological mechanism may make them wary about your own identification with your home country or culture of origin — than it is to understand why some majorities just wouldn’t like people to identify with a culture,” Thomsen said.

The “Two or More Races” population is projected to be the fastest growing over the next several decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s press release in March 2018.

Eui Young Kim | euiyoung.kim@yale.edu