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Egenis · Research

The relationships between theories of group membership and inter-group attitude (2004-2006)

Thomas Morton

Start date


Affiliated staff

Alex Haslam, Tom Postmes, (both Psychology Dept., University of Exeter)


Homepage: Thomas Morton Email: t.morton@ex.ac.uk


The aim of this project is two fold. First, we aim to explore how people explain differences between social groups (e.g., based on race/ ethnicity, gender, sexuality) and the contexts within which particular forms of explanation are preferred to others (e.g., when do people see differences between groups as ‘natural’?). Second, we aim to explore the consequences of promoting particular forms of explanation for people’s behaviour towards others within their social world.


To answer the above questions, we draw on quantitative social-psychological research methods including both surveys and experiments. We have conducted our research using a variety of different populations, including students, members of the general public, school children, and members of specific minority groups in society.

For example:

  • Surveys of the general public have examined relationships among beliefs about the causes of gender differences (biology, society), individual differences in prejudice (sexism), and perceptions of gender relations in society.
  • Surveys within specific minority communities (e.g., amongst non-heterosexual people) have explored how they define their own identity, what they see the cause of their identity to be, and how the identity definitions and explanations they provide are related to perceived treatment by the mainstream (i.e., the heterosexual majority) and opportunities for social change.
  • More controlled experiments have examined how manipulating individual perceptions of the social structure (e.g., perceptions of social inequality and social change) effects explanations for intergroup differences and, reciprocally, how exposure to specific explanations effects attitudes and actions toward others in society.


  • In relation to the question of when prejudice is expressed through essentialism, our research shows that this reliably occurs under conditions of social change. That is, when society is perceived to be changing, prejudiced members of the dominant group (e.g., men in the context of gender, whites in the context of race) are more likely to adopt a naturalized perspective on intergroup difference.
  • Our research also shows that exposure to essentialist (naturalized) theories reinforces discriminatory attitudes intentions among members of the majority, and can undermine resistance amongst the majority.
  • Together, these strands of research suggest a reciprocal relationship between essentialist beliefs and perceptions of the social structure: threats of change to positions of higher status produce essentialist thinking, and exposure to essentialist theories reinforces the social structure. Thus identity motives (e.g., desires to achieve and protect higher status) are likely to guide how people explain the differences they see between groups in society.
  • Although this suggests that naturalized presentations of identity feed into social inequality, our research among minority groups suggests that they might also draw on essentialist ideas to challenge their treatment by the majority. For example, thinking about the ways in which their group is marginalized increased support for biological theories of sexuality among sexual minorities, and this in turn increased feelings of personal agency and control. Thus, although minorities might also endorse essentialist theories of difference, the motivations guiding this are likely to be different to the majority.
  • Theoretically, this work contributes to recent social psychological work on essentialist beliefs about social categories by providing amore nuanced perspective on when and why people become motivated to see intergroup differences as natural.
  • Specifically, our research suggest that essentialist beliefs are not simply a product of individual differences prejudice. Instead support for essentialist theories is also guided by identity concerns—specifically, desires to protect positions of status and dominance by the majority and desires to challenge social exclusion by the minority.
  • Practically, this work highlights the political uses of scientific theories and suggests some causes and consequences for understanding human identity and intergroup differences in biological terms.


Morton, T. Hornsey, Blackwood, Louis, Fielding, Mavor, O’Brien, Paasonen, Smith, White (2007) Why do people engage in collective action? Revisiting the role of perceived effectiveness, Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Morton, T. Haslam, S. A., Postmes, T., & Ryan, M. K.(2007), We value what values us: The appeal of identity-affirming science, Political Psychology.

Morton, T. Postmes, T., & Jetten, J. (2007), Playing the game: When group success is more important than downgrading deviants, European Journal of Social Psychology.

Morton, T. Duck, J.M.(2006), Enlisting the influence of others: Alternative strategies for persuasive media campaigns, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 2, pp.269-296.