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Making sense of ourselves
Making sense of ourselves

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1.2 Potential limitations of self-report measures of prejudice

One potential limitation is that self-report measures are particularly vulnerable to what psychologists call social desirability effects. We all know, for example, that it is ‘wrong’ to be prejudiced towards others. Agreeing with the race stereotypes presented in Figure 1 might thus lead others to see us in a negative light. This may create a pressure to respond to these scales in ways that convey a more positive, socially desirable, self-image.

Given that the moral norm against expressing prejudice has become stronger over the past decades, the historical changes indicated in Figure 1 may simply reflect changes in people’s surface expressions of stereotyping rather than changes in their actual underlying beliefs about others. In other words, they may reflect the faking rather than fading of prejudiced responses.

In order to illustrate this point, you will find below a shortened version of a widely used explicit measure of prejudice, called the modern racism scale, which you are invited to complete. It has been adapted for use here (adapted from McConahay, cited in Dovidio and Gaertner, 1986, pp. 91-125).

(Please note that this exercise is simply designed to give you some practical experience of different methods psychologists use to measure prejudice and that your performance on these tasks is completely confidential and will not be stored or used for any other purpose.)

Activity 1 Explicit and implicit attitudes towards others

Timing: This first short reading and activity will take about 40 minutes to complete.

This activity is designed to explore the distinction between explicit prejudice and implicit prejudice. It is also designed to give you practical experience of methods designed to measure implicit prejudice.

Indicate the degree to which you agree with the statements below by selecting the number from the following scale that best matches your own opinion.

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How did you respond to these items?

We guaranteed that your responses would be kept strictly anonymous (and they will). Would you have performed differently on this questionnaire if you believed they would be made public? If so, why?

These kinds of questions orient to the problem of ‘social desirability’. It is very easy to work out that high scores on this scale indicate high levels of ‘prejudice’. In turn, it is easy for individuals to fill in this questionnaire in ways that present a ‘positive’ image of themselves as unprejudiced. More subtly, this pressure to act in a socially desirable way may vary across different social contexts. We tend to be most concerned about ‘looking good’, for example, when we know our responses might be seen by others or could cause offence.