When people violate unwritten rules about behavior that is considered appropriate for their gender or their race, they are often subject to backlash effects (social and economic penalties for behaving in unexpected or "atypical" ways). For example, a Hispanic woman who behaves in a highly dominant or assertive fashion might be shunned or punished in certain settings when the same behavior would actually be rewarded for a White man. Backlash is an important phenomenon worthy of scientific inquiry because it prevents people who violate stereotypes from achieving their goals and aspirations. Backlash is also problematic because it prevents such people from serving as visible, outstanding role models (as people who have overcome cultural stereotypes). Importantly, backlash is not engaged in arbitrarily; it must usually be justified. The proposed research builds on recent advances in backlash theory, which suggest that people justify backlash by charging atypical women and men with violating stereotypic proscriptions (for women, prohibitions against dominance, and for African Americans, prohibitions against intelligence). In other words, almost no one criticizes a dominant woman for being "too powerful for a woman." Instead they criticize her for being "extremely difficult," "overbearing," or "domineering." Because these gender rules punish women for behaving in ways that could increase women's economic and social status, these rules tend to maintain and perpetuate lower cultural status among women. In addition, several experiments will also investigate backlash against atypical African Americans, as well as uniquely examine the intersection of gender and race (e.g., Are African American women generally at greater risk for experiencing backlash than are Black men, or does it depend on which stereotype people violate?).
In 11 experimental laboratory-based studies and drawing from preliminary research, the PI will investigate the potential psychological motives for gender and race backlash. The Status Incongruity Hypothesis (SIH), developed by the PI, posits that people are discomfited by the conflict between women's gender status (which is low) and their high-status behavior (when they are agentic). Although people readily acknowledge their competence, they use the dominance penalty to justify backlash against them. The SIH presents a significant breakthrough in illuminating why women's progress has stalled, or in some cases, reversed. It can similarly be used to explain the experience of many ethnic minority persons. Instead of blaming stereotype violation per se, it views status-violations as culpable. As a result, a key motive for backlash concerns system-justification, a process whereby people defend the status quo to preserve their need to believe the world is just and fair. By understanding which factors play the largest role in backlash, how the factors might sometimes operate together, and whether the factors operate differently or in similar fashion for women and men, and for Blacks and Whites, the investigator will begin to shed light on the exact psychological motives and mechanisms behind backlash. Ultimately, this work will advance understanding about what motivates backlash and at the same time facilitate the design of effective interventions to attenuate its effects on women and minorities.