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Side Effects of a Multicultural Ideology

July 26, 2013

By Mathias Kauff, Frank Asbrock, Stefan Thörner, and Ulrich Wagner (Philipps University Marburg, Germany)

Ethnic diversity is constantly increasing. Consider, for example, the city of London. Once home to people of primarily English ancestry, London has become the prototype of an ethnically diverse city, with more than 300 spoken languages and about 50 different immigrant communities.

Increases in the diversity of society are often accompanied by heated debate about how ethnic groups should live together. One influential model of interethnic interaction is multiculturalism. Independent from its meaning in social sciences, multiculturalism has become a controversial keyword in political debates, especially among conservatives. In 2010, German Chancellor Merkel stated that the multicultural society has “utterly failed”. She was praised for these words – by other heads of states like former French President Sarkozy and British Prime minister David Cameron and also by journalists such as the conservative U.S.-American blogger A.W.R. Hawkins. Hawkins appreciated that the German government has finally recognized the dangers of multiculturalism. Obviously the idea of multiculturalism poses a threat to certain people.

But what exactly is multiculturalism from a scientific perspective? In social psychology multiculturalism is considered as an ideology which proposes that differences between cultural groups should not only be acknowledged but celebrated (Takaki, 1993). In the majority of studies individual endorsement of a multicultural ideology by majority group members has been shown to be associated with positive attitudes towards ethnic minority groups. However, what happens when members of ethnic outgroups are perceived as threatening? Vorauer and Sasaki (2011) found that when a multicultural ideology is predominant, outgoup members who are threatening to the ingoup (for example because they disagree throughout an interaction) are treated more negatively compared to threatening outgroups in situation in which multiculturalism is not salient. Their results indicated that in threatening situations a multicultural ideology leads to more negative behavior towards ethnic minority group members. Obviously, under the influence of certain (threatening) situational attributes, a multicultural ideology can change relations between ethnic groups for the worse. In our article, recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Kauff, Asbrock, Thörner, & Wagner, 2013), we extend these findings and argue that a multicultural ideology per se can pose a threat to certain persons – especially to high authoritarians. Feeling threatened should in turn increase negative attitudes towards ethnic outgroups for authoritarian individuals.

Authoritarian individuals have first been described by Adorno and colleagues in 1950 (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950). The authors characterized high authoritarians by a motivation to obey authorities and to punish those that do not adhere to societal norms. In other words, authoritarians have a high motivation for conformity and security. They are highly identified with their ethnic group and try to fend of threats to this group. Not surprisingly, authoritarian individuals express prejudice especially towards those groups that are perceived as a threat to social security and ingroup values – for example towards immigrant groups that adhere to their cultural values. Since a multicultural ideology allows ethnic minorities to maintain their cultural identity, this ideology should threaten authoritarian persons. As a defense reaction to this threat, ethnic minority groups should be devalued by authoritarians.

We tested this assumption in three studies – in each we used a different expression of a multicultural ideology. In the first study, drawing on representative survey data from 23 European countries, we showed that the more countries endorse multicultural measures the stronger is the relation between inhabitants’ authoritarianism and negative assessment of ethnic diversity.


Figure 1: Effects of experimental conditions on prejudice against immigrants under the influence of authoritarianism in Study 2

In the second study, we invited participants to our lab and asked them to watch a short video. This video was either a video promoting multiculturalism (by showing the German national football team as an example of a multicultural group) or one of three unrelated control videos. After having watched the video, participants were asked to fill in a questionnaire asking for their attitudes towards immigrants. The multiculturalism video (but not the control video) led to increased prejudice towards immigrants for those participants who scored high in authoritarianism (see Figure 1). In other words, watching a video presenting a powerful example for multiculturalism made authoritarian persons devaluate ethnic minority groups.

In the third study, participants were confronted with pictures showing a multicultural group (or in the control condition: pictures showing an ethnic heterogeneous group). Again, authoritarians showed higher prejudice towards immigrants after being confronted with the multicultural stimuli. Additionally, in this study we measured perceptions of threat. In line with our theoretical reasoning we could show that for authoritarian individuals increased prejudice after having seen the picture of the multicultural group could be explained by increased perceptions of being threatened. For individuals that are motivated to secure the norms and values of their ethnic group multiculturalism poses a threat which leads to a devaluation of ethnic outgroups.

Although our research suggests that the promotion of a multicultural ideology can have unintended negative effects for authoritarian persons we want to clarify that our results should not be understood as evidence against the idea of multiculturalism. In fact our studies illustrate that proposing multiculturalism might backfire – presumably when it overtly aims at direct cognitive changes in the targets and hence leads to threats and resistance to authoritarians. From this it can be concluded that practitioners and interventionists should keep in mind that successful interventions focusing on multiculturalism should carefully propose the benefits of multiculturalism rather than directly imposing multicultural ideologies.

Author Information

KauffMathias Kauff is a PostDoc-researcher at the Department of Psychology at the Philipps University Marburg (Germany). His research focuses on prejudice, discrimination, intergroup contact, and attitudes towards diversity.

AsbrockFrank Asbrock is a lecturer at the Department of Psychology at the Philipps University Marburg (Germany). His research focuses on ideological attitudes, intergroup relations, intergroup contact, and fundamental dimensions of social perception.

Stefan Thörner is a doctoral stuThornerdent at the Department of Psychology at the Philipps University Marburg (Germany). His research interests are prejudice, discrimination, terrorism, threat, social desirability bias and latent variable modeling.

Ulrich Wagner is Professor of Social PsychoWagnerlogy at Philipps University Marburg, Germany (Germany). His research interests include intergroup relations, ethnic prejudice and intergroup aggression as well as implementation of intervention programs and their evaluation...


Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D., & Sanford, N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York, NY: Harper.

Kauff, M., Asbrock, F., Thörner, S., & Wagner, U. (2013). Side effects of multiculturalism – The interaction effect of a multicultural ideology and authoritarianism on prejudice and diversity beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(3), 306-321.

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston, MA: Little Brown.

Vorauer, J. D., & Sasaki, S. J. (2011). In the worst rather than the best of times: Effects of salient intergroup ideology in threatening intergroup interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 307-320.

Image Credit:  Multikulti-Gruppe im Kindergarten – Gebhart Gruber –

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