Jacqueline Rifkin first heard “Jewlane” used in reference to Tulane University while at a conference. She was surprised that a presenter would use the term and furthermore, she knew the majority of students at Tulane weren’t Jewish. Too, it reminded Rifkin of the way people referred to her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, as “Jew Penn.”
At the time, Rifkin was earning a PhD at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in marketing; she is now assistant professor of marketing at Cornell University. After the conference, she discussed the experience with Rebecca Ponce de Leon, a PhD candidate in management and organization, who is now assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School. Ponce de Leon, from Decatur, Georgia, mentioned that some people refer to her hometown as “Dyke-catur,” because of the perceived large numbers of gay people there.
“We were both seeing this happening around us,” Ponce de Leon recalled. “What drives this perception that these groups are dominating these spaces when they aren’t?”
They decided to turn their scholarly attention to the issue. Rifkin said, “We wanted to see if this was a reliable patten, that people are inflating or overestimating some of these groups.”
They approached faculty member Rick Larrick, the Hanes Corporation Foundation Professor of Business Administration and a professor of management and organization, and the three decided to collaborate. The results of their investigations were published recently in the journal Psychological Science.
“I’m really proud of the paper because it’s a pure Fuqua accomplishment,” Larrick said, “It’s a homegrown idea that started with two graduate students. Part of what we’re doing as an institution is training future scholars and Rebecca and Jacqueline are those scholars."
The three researchers suspected that inflating the numbers of certain groups in specific locations was related to symbolic threat, which occurs when someone feels a group of people hold values and worldviews that differ significantly from their own. There is no physical danger, just deep unease. “Your rules for the universe are being challenged,” Rifkin said, “You have these rules in your head for how the world works and you don’t want to be in same room with someone who would disagree with those.”
The scholars designed a series of studies. In one, they gave participants a survey designed to identify those who felt symbolically threatened by gay people. Next, they told participants that 100 employees at a 500-person company had returned a demographic survey and of that group, 25 were gay. Participants were asked to guess the percentage of gay people in the entire company. People who viewed gay people as a symbolic threat gave an average estimate significantly higher than 25 percent.
Conversely, the researchers said participants who didn’t view gay people as symbolically threatening gave more accurate answers – their average guess was right at 25 percent.
In a similar study, researchers compared what happened when “gay” was replaced with the neutral trait of green eyes. “We observed the inflation more in the gay condition than in the green-eyed condition,” Rifkin said, “which says there is more going on than just people being bad at making mathematical estimations – something about the nature of the group itself and how threatening it seems.”
In another experiment, the group showed participants maps of several neighborhoods where dots indicated immigrant households. When they were told that the immigrants’ values and worldviews differed from theirs in important ways, participants labeled neighborhoods as “immigrant neighborhoods” at a relatively low density of dots. When they were told the immigrants had values and worldviews similar to their own, participants didn’t use the label “immigrant neighborhood” until the density of dots was higher.
“I was really struck that we saw this without any numbers,” Rifkin said. “There was no math involved. The same dots on the map meant completely different things depending on how we described what those dots [represented].”
Another set of studies also supported the idea that the presence of relatively small numbers of people from a symbolically threatening group can lead people to associate the space with that group.
They asked participants to imagine walking into a bar or restaurant where about 30 percent of the diners were wearing T-shirts with the initials PDL. In some cases, participants were told the initials represented a pro-life group and in other cases they were told they represented a pro-choice group. If the initials conflicted with their own views, participants were more likely to label the bar as being associated with that cause. In other words, a pro-choice participant was more willing to call it a pro-life bar if told PDL referred to a pro-life group, but not very likely to call it a pro-choice bar if told PDL referred to a pro-choice group.
“It didn’t matter if you were [pro-life or pro-choice],” Ponce de Leon said, “if you saw a group with different beliefs, you had this tendency to think there was some connection between this group and the restaurant.”
The researchers point out that the tendency to draw conclusions about a place from the people there is not all bad. For example, travelers may examine diners in a restaurant to try to figure it if it’s a local hangout or a touristy place. “It is not inherently nefarious,” Rifkin said, “but there is a version driven by fear that can be nefarious. It can be blown out of proportion if left unchecked.”
The authors believe their work could help people become more aware of their own biases and could spur more research to develop effective strategies to help people move beyond these kinds of place-based judgments.
“We’re demonstrating that these patterns exist,” Larrick said. “Once we understand a kind of bias, we can set up tools to help people avoid that bias.”