New Paper Accepted to Psychological Science!

posted Jul 21, 2013, 8:39 AM by William Cox

Stereotyping to Infer Group Membership Creates "Plausible Deniability" for Prejudice-Based Aggression

William T. L. Cox and Patricia G. Devine (In Press)

Psychological Science

This paper reports a study demonstrating that inferring group membership from a stereotype provides “plausible deniability” for prejudice-based aggression, allowing people to evade external condemnations against prejudice.

Experimental Materials and Data Files


Participants administered painful electric shocks to an unseen male opponent who was either explicitly labeled gay or stereotypically implied to be gay. Identifying the opponent with a gay-stereotypic attribute produced a situation in which the target’s group status was privately inferred but plausibly deniable to others. Testing the plausible deniability hypothesis, we examined aggression levels as a function of internal (personal) and external (social) motivation to respond without prejudice. Whether plausible deniability was present or absent, participants high in internal motivation aggressed little and participants low in both internal and external motivation aggressed at high levels. The behavior of low internal, high external motivation participants, however, depended upon experimental condition. They aggressed at low levels when others could plausibly attribute their behavior to prejudice and at high levels when the situation granted plausible deniability. We discuss both obstacles to and potential avenues for prejudice reduction efforts.