Revealing Britain’s prejudices

Ella Rhodes reports.

While many of us espouse egalitarian ideals a new national survey from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, designed by psychologists, reveals the hidden prejudices many in Britain hold. The researchers found that although a majority of people believe all groups should be treated equally, a quarter suggested they would not be comfortable if their boss had a mental health condition and more than a third said attempts toward creating equal opportunities for immigrants and Muslims had gone ‘too far’.

In 2005 Professors Dominic Abrams (University of Kent) and Diane Houston (Birkbeck, University of London) conducted a survey for the Cabinet Office, assessing public attitudes towards six different groups in Britain. In 2016, in an Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) review of the previous 10 years of evidence, Abrams, Dr Hannah Swift and Dr Lynsey Mahmood (City University) established that prejudice and discrimination towards different groups had not been consistently measured in Britain. The EHRC decided to commission a new survey to establish national benchmarks of prejudice against which future surveys in the area can be compared, and recently released the results as a companion to its three-yearly Is Britain Fairer report.

In the new 2018 survey, designed by Abrams, Swift and Houston, the National Centre for Social Research collected data from a representative sample of 2853 participants from England, Scotland and Wales, and an extra survey to target minority groups.

One of the more surprising results from the 2018 survey was that prejudice remains so entrenched and continues to affect so many people. More than four in ten people in Britain said they had experienced some form of prejudice in the last 12 months, including 70 per cent of Muslims experiencing prejudice based on their religion, 64 per cent of people from a black ethnic background experiencing race-based prejudice and 61 per cent of people with a mental health condition experiencing impairment-based prejudice.

Of the British people surveyed, 74 per cent agreed there should be equality for all groups in Britain (one in ten disagreed), but when asked about specific groups the picture changed. More people expressed openly negative feelings toward Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, Muslims and transgender people than did so toward gay and lesbian people, those over 70 and people with a disability.

One quarter of those surveyed expressed discomfort over having a boss with a mental health condition and 29 per cent were uncomfortable having someone with such a condition as a potential family member. Roughly one fifth of people said they would be uncomfortable if an immigrant or Muslim person lived next door.

Around a third of participants felt the effort to give marginalised groups, especially immigrants and Muslims, equal opportunities had gone ‘too far’. However, the authors report, 63 per cent of people thought that drives toward equal opportunities for people with mental health problems had not gone far enough.

Abrams said that while people may believe in equality in principle, they often become more selective on this when they are asked about particular groups. He pointed to Susan Fiske’s stereotype content model by way of an explanation. ‘There’s a distinction between groups that tend to be paternalised or treated “benevolently” and groups that are treated in a more hostile way. What it means, for example, is that people tend not to express overt hostility to older people or disabled people – nonetheless a high proportion of those people say they’ve experienced prejudice directed against them. But the form of prejudice tends to be patronising, a lack of respect or assuming they’re not competent, so they’re treated as likeable and deserving, but nonetheless as lacking in competence and as not worth taking seriously. I think for a lot of these groups that situation has persisted or become worse.’

On the other side there are groups such as Muslims or those in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities who experience high levels of overtly hostile discrimination. ‘This can include being insulted, being treated negatively and hate crime. Prejudice takes all these different forms, and I think our survey reinforces, quite strongly, that strategies to improve fairness and equality need to address all different forms of prejudice and discrimination.’

There are multiple and complex causes of prejudicial beliefs and discriminatory behaviour. Abrams said that the current worldwide state of political and economic flux may foment intergroup suspicions and prejudices, and he pointed to the potential influence of the Brexit vote. Since the referendum in 2016 he said tensions had increased between different groups in the UK, not only on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion but also due to age and region. ‘This may be a consequence of the referendum result and the economic uncertainty that the UK now faces. But it probably also reflects global conditions, the rise of populism, nationalism, and clashes of value systems around the world. If there has been a distinct “Brexit effect”, then a satisfactory deal with the EU and the more certain future could reduce these tensions. On the other hand, no-deal, or a situation that causes significant economic and practical disruption within the UK could well add further energy to intergroup divisions and we could see rises in prejudice, hate crime, and antagonism between groups.’

However, Abrams maintains hope, and said there are many researchers and others doing work to tackle these issues and solutions were not out of reach. ‘One approach is strengthening legal constraints, such as defining more types of prejudice-based crimes defined as hate crimes. However, as psychologists we have a significant part to play through designing effective educational interventions and enabling people to recognise and understand the nature of prejudice.’ Abrams pointed as an example to the Anne Frank Trust, of which he is trustee, which uses Anne Frank’s story to teach young people about the nature of prejudice so they are better equipped to recognise and challenge it.  

‘How we deal with ingrained prejudices in the rest of the population requires, I think, a combination of law, changes in norms and changes in what’s regarded as acceptable practice. But, clearly, as a society we have to monitor levels of prejudice, be aware of its different causes and alert to different types of events and situations which might be generating hatred between groups. We also need social and psychological tools to respond to those quickly and prevent such attitudes from becoming too entrenched.’ 

For a full report on the survey see: tinyurl.com/ydz9dsdt; for the Is Britain Fairer 2018 report see: tinyurl.com/y7hxnqyh

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber