Foreign threats to U.S. raise tolerance for diversity, study finds

Research looks at how intergroup harmony in the U.S. changed as a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks

Foreign threats to the United States can encourage tolerance for diversity domestically and a corresponding intolerance for diversity internationally, according to a study by UBC Okanagan and Stanford University researchers published this week in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

On September 11, 2001, Paul Davies was a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University working on the psychology of intergroup relations. As military jets escorted passenger airliners from the skies in the hours after terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and in the air over Pennsylvania, Davies realized that all around him the interactions between people had shifted dramatically.

“The world changed instantaneously,” he says. “Foreigner became synonymous with enemy. There was all this animosity directed towards any foreigner, and at the same time there was an extraordinary outpouring of brotherly love within America. We had this paradox that 9/11 led to intergroup harmony inside the United States while leading to intergroup conflict outside the United States.”

Davies decided to look more closely at what was happening. Within a few months, he and co-investigators Claude Steele and Hazel Rose Markus from Stanford University had a research program ready to go -- examining the relationship between foreign threats, national identity and citizens’ endorsement of models for both foreign and domestic intergroup relations.

“To the best of our knowledge, this line of research is the first to document these relationships,” says Davies, who is now a professor of psychology at UBC Okanagan. “Our initial studies, conducted during the week of the six-month anniversary of 9/11, had Americans read a U.S. senator’s policy on intergroup relations. During this period of national challenge, Americans endorsed multiculturalism more as a domestic policy and assimilation more as a foreign policy.”

Davies notes that a foreign policy of assimilation presumes that your nation’s values, principles, and practices are a model for all foreign cultures to emulate. That’s in stark contrast to multiculturalism, which strives to have a reciprocal relationship with other cultures and embraces diversity as a source of strength.

In subsequent research, American participants were exposed to a United Nations report that either challenged or supported U.S. global status. Americans who read that foreigners were threatening the dominant status of the U.S. once again revealed a strong preference for assimilation (i.e. promoting the U.S. as a model for foreign countries to emulate) as a foreign policy, but Americans who read that foreigners were supporting the dominant status of the U.S. no longer revealed this preference.

“Most recently, we discovered that Americans primed with 9/11 -- a foreign threat -- revealed higher levels of national identity than those primed with the Columbine massacre -- a domestic threat,” says Davies. He points out that a heightened level of national identity predicted support for multiculturalism as a domestic policy and support for assimilation as a foreign policy.

“During a period of national challenge, embracing one’s national identity can be highly adaptive,” Davies says. “The healing power of embracing one’s national identity was obvious among the 78 percent of Americans who indicated, in 2002, that 9/11 and its aftermath has changed America for the better. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that calamity can unite people in a way that shared humanity cannot.”

A nation challenged: The impact of foreign threat on America’s tolerance for diversity is published in the August edition of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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