The Meaning of Demeaning: Social Identity Threats and Deviant Behavior

Diversity training programs that promote inclusion may be worth every penny your company spends.

“People have a universal desire for respect,” says Darden Professor Peter Belmi, who specializes in leadership and organizational behavior. “There are substantial costs when people feel that they are not accorded the respect that they think they deserve.”

Belmi and his colleagues investigated how people respond to social identity threats — circumstances under which people think they may be devalued simply because of their social identity (ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation) or membership in a particular group.

Past research has shown that people perform worse, think less creatively and lose their self-control when they experience identity threats. Belmi’s work, conducted over a four-year period with colleagues from Stanford University, showed that people who feel devalued because of their group memberships were also more likely to engage in non-normative and anti-social behaviors. In academic settings, that meant a greater propensity for illegal drug use, cheating, ethical violations, and violence toward other students and school authorities. In the workplace, individuals who felt devalued showed more willingness to misuse company time and resources, to cut corners, and to do things that deliberately hindered productivity.

“What we saw was that if people perceive that the game’s unfair, they’re less likely to internalize a system’s values and play by its rules,” Belmi says.

When the Game Seems Rigged

 To investigate what happens in the workplace, Belmi and colleagues asked 303 participants in one study to imagine they were up for promotion at a prestigious consulting company. One group, the “threat group,” was told they’d overheard the firm’s managing director disparage black people’s intelligence. A second group, “no threat,” was told they’d heard the executive mention that studies show no difference in intelligence among racial groups. (A third, control group was told they’d overheard the executive talking about his retirement.) Belmi then tracked how participants anticipated being treated by the organization and how likely they were to do things that worked against the company’s interests. All participants in the threat group expected poor treatment from the firm, particularly if they were black. And these participants, in turn, were more likely to endorse counterproductive behaviors at work, such as stealing company supplies, over-reporting hours, deliberately working slower, damaging company equipment, searching for a new job on company time and so forth, compared to other participants in the study. These socially threatened participants were roughly 55 percent more likely than black Americans in the no-threat or control groups to say they’d engage in these wasteful or destructive behaviors. In a follow-up study, Belmi and colleagues also found that social identity threats increased the incidence of lying and cheating in the laboratory.

 Inclusion Counts

 The implication? Inclusion is both an ethical imperative and a source of competitive advantage for business. A manager’s top priority, notes Belmi, is to drive productive engagement and commitment — the exact traits that suffer when employees experience social identity threats. Belmi speculates that people can pick up subtle forms of bias, such as when managers persistently use the term “guys” to address a group of men and women, or when minorities see that people like them are visibly under-represented in high-ranking positions in the company. These things can inadvertently signal what qualities are valued or respected in an organization and can have an impact on employee behavior.

“What we’re seeing is how much the chemistry of the environment matters,” says Belmi. “It’s not necessarily bad apples; it’s bad barrels.” He further added the importance of vigilance. “Because of strong social norms, most people today reject the notion of explicit prejudice. But prejudice and bias today take subtler forms, and that’s what managers need to watch out for.”

A Powerful Impact

 Social identity threats are powerful on the psyche — more powerful, in fact, than personal threats, according to Belmi. In another study, Belmi and colleagues asked female participants to imagine that they faced the possibility of being denied a promotion either because their boss didn’t think a woman was suitable for a leadership position, or because their boss didn’t believe that their personality was suitable for the job. The former triggered stronger anti-social responses.

Why? While it can be easier to dismiss and move on from a personal conflict (“this person’s style clashes with mine”), social identity threats aren’t perceived as “isolated,” — they reflect pervasive, negative and systemic bias toward a particular group, Belmi says. Over time, these experiences can cohere into a painful narrative: My group or my society does not respect me, simply because of my group membership.

“Encounters with bias in mainstream institutions such as school or work can establish an expectation of disrespectful and undignified treatment,” Belmi writes, “which may then increase the likelihood of deviance, delinquency and crime.”

Peter Belmi co-authored “Threats to Social Identity Can Trigger Social Deviance,” which appeared in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, with Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, Margaret A. Neale and Geoffrey L. Cohen, all of Stanford University.

About the Faculty

Peter Belmi

Belmi seeks to understand why rich people are rich, why poor people are poor, and why social disparities between the rich and the poor persist over time. To answer these questions, he examines the social psychological forces that contribute to the reproduction of hierarchies and social inequality. In one line... Learn More



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