Social Stigma and Self-esteem
Brenda Major Principal Investigator
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It is well recognized that individuals who belong to stigmatized groups, such as the handicapped, homosexuals, and members of certain racial and ethnic groups, face a considerable degree of prejudice and discrimination, both socially and economically. Psychologists have long believed that this prejudice and discrimination should have quite negative effects on the self-concepts of members of these groups. In particular, it is commonly assumed that members of stigmatized groups have lower self-esteem than members of more advantaged groups. Surprisingly, however, research to date generally does not support this assumption. Blacks and whites, homosexuals and heterosexuals, unattractive and attractive individuals, women and men, generally do not differ in their overall levels of self-esteem. Why not? This is the focus of this research. This research will examine two types of strategies that people who are members of stigmatized groups may use to protect their self-esteem from the negative effects of prejudice and discrimination. First, members of such groups may come to personally devalue those attributes or qualities on which they fare poorly relative to more advantaged groups. Consequently, negative comments regarding those attributes may have a relatively minor impact on their overall feelings of self- worth. Thus, for example, a physically handicapped person might come to feel that physical agility is far less important than intellectual prowess, and hence might be relatively unfazed by negative comments of comparisons about the former skill. Second, members of stigmatized groups may blame negative feedback they receive on prejudice againt their group, rather than on themselves. As a result, they may be personally protected from such feedback. These ideas will be tested in nine studies, using five different types of experimental designs, and two types of stigmatized groups -- women and blacks. Results of this reseach will demonstrate some of the psychological mechanisms responsible for the paradoxically high self-esteem frequently found among people who are members of groups that are discriminated against. More importantly, it should indicate the conditions that are likely to put members of such groups at risk for lowered self-esteem.