Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Dec 27, 2019

Why People Often Overlook Discrimination against Themselves

by Mauricio Carvallo and Brett Pelham
Asian brunette woman in a white shirt covering her face with her hand on a black background

Most people know it can be very difficult to be a member of a low status group. Across the globe, many people face stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. From ethnic and religious minorities to gender nonconforming people and those with physical disabilities or learning disorders, the list of groups that are sometimes stigmatized is almost as large as the list of groups to which people may belong.  Even high-status people experience discrimination in some areas. Who among us has never jumped to the conclusion that “White men can’t jump”?  Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination are pervasive.   

In light of this fact, you might expect that individual members of low-status groups would report that they themselves have often been the victims of discrimination. But research reveals a paradox.  The same people who report that other members of their groups face frequent discrimination typically report that they themselves have faced far less discrimination than other people have.  “Things are bad for us,” people seem to think, “but it’s not as bad for me as it is for the others.” This perceived gap between how people view what happens to other members of their  group and what happens to themselves  has been shown many different ways.  This is distressing.  When people are oblivious to their own experiences with discrimination, they may indirectly communicate to others that discrimination is not a big social problem.  Furthermore, they may not be very motivated to work toward social change. 

There are several explanations for the self-other gap in perceived discrimination.  Some researchers  argue that people are more comfortable pointing fingers at others in general than they are criticizing specific others.  For example, it may be easier to criticize men as a vague group than it is to criticize the 43 specific men I know well. Victims of discrimination might also wish to distance themselves from negative stereotypes that are hurled at their social groups.  In short, people might reason that “As kind and competent as I am, how could anyone stereotype me?”  Though there is support for such explanations, a broader explanation for the self-other gap in perceived discrimination is based in the “need to belong”—the  powerful and well-documented desire for frequent, positive, and stable interactions with others. It’s the need for social acceptance.     

To the degree that potential perpetrators of discrimination are people with whom we have—or would like to have—meaningful relationships (such as spouses, employers, or coaches), our need to feel accepted by such people might cause us to overlook unfair treatment.  We tested this idea in three studies. 

In one study, we focused on perceived gender discrimination in a large group of college students.  First, we measured individual differences in the need to belong. People who scored high in the need to belong strongly endorsed statements such as “My feelings are easily hurt when I feel that others do not accept me.”  We measured perceived personal discrimination by asking people questions such as “I have personally experienced gender discrimination” and “I have often been treated unfairly because of my gender.”  To assess perceived discrimination against women (or men) in general, the same students answered questions such as “The average female (male) college student has experienced gender discrimination” and “The average female (male) college student has often been treated unfairly because of her (his) gender.”  Students generally reported that other members of their gender group had faced more gender discrimination than they had personally faced. But this gap in perceived discrimination was almost twice as large for students high in the need to belong as it was for students low in the need to belong.  

In two follow-up studies, we directly increased or decreased people’s need to belong to see if making the need to belong higher made people less likely to think they were personally discriminated against.  In one study, we increased the need to belong by telling some female college students that an interesting and handsome man named Chris had just moved to the area and was hoping to meet new friends.  We decreased the need to belong in a different group of women by informing them that the same interesting and handsome man had just moved to the area, was married, and was about to become a father.  Both groups of women also learned that Chris, while politically liberal on some issues, had highly conservative gender attitudes. For example, they were told that Chris thought that “women  are less serious about their jobs and take jobs away from men with families to support.  Further, later in this study, we led our female participants to believe that Chris criticized some work they had just performed. 

Was Chris being sexist?  Or had their work deserved a poor appraisal?  The answer depended heavily on how much participants wanted Chris to like them. When our female participants knew that Chris was romantically committed, they reported that Chris had judged them unfairly.  But when they believed that Chris was single, they concluded that it was their own work—rather than Chris—that was flawed.  In other words, when these women wanted Chris to accept them, they interpreted Chris’s potentially sexist comments through a very favorable lens. 

In another study we simply exposed some participants to a long list of words that merely suggested acceptance.  Such participants completed a five-minute word search puzzle full of words such as “accepted,” “welcomed,” and “included.”  Those for whom the mere concept of acceptance had been activated reported experiencing just as much personal discrimination as the typical member of their group. But those who had been exposed to words unrelated to acceptance (because they did a different word search puzzle) showed the usual gap in perceived discrimination.  People who have recently had their need to belong filled (even in a highly unusual way) become more willing than usual to acknowledge instances of personal discrimination.     

One reason why we often fail to acknowledge when we’ve been treated unfairly is that we perceive other people (discriminators, that is) not as fiends, but as real or potential friends.  The need to belong is a powerful and pervasive social motivation.  It keeps us from becoming hermits, and it often motivates us to cooperate with others. But like any other motivation, the need to belong has its costs, one of which is overlooking our own experiences of discrimination.

For Further Reading

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529. 

Carvallo, M., & Pelham, B. W. (2006). When fiends become friends: The need to belong and perceptions of personal and group discrimination.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 94-108.


Mauricio Carvallo is an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies attachment, social perception, the self, close relationships, and discrimination.

Brett Pelham is a professor of psychology at Montgomery College, MD, who studies gender, the self, and social cognition.  He is also an associate editor at Character and Context.    

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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