The social psychologist Dr Hans Alves from the Social Cognition Center Cologne (SOCCO) at the University of Cologne has been awarded a Starting Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). Alves will receive a total of approximately 1.4 million euros in funding over a period of five years to research the challenges of social diversity and the psychological processes of how negative attitudes towards and stereotypes of minorities emerge in his project ‘The Cognitive-Ecological Challenge of Diversity’.
As globalization progresses, societies are becoming increasingly diverse in terms of people’s ethnic and religious backgrounds, their habits, ideals, and beliefs. While this increasing diversity offers great opportunities for Europe and the world, it also comes with some challenges. The human tendency to devalue marginalized and minority groups poses a threat to peace and cohesion in diversifying societies. Most psychological explanations for the emergence of negative attitudes and stereotypes towards others are based on the assumption that people have selfish motives or personalities. In his project, however, Alves takes a different approach to understanding some of the greatest challenges facing societies today.
Based on the research he has conducted in recent years, he proposes a new theoretical framework that provides novel explanations for the emergence of negative attitudes towards and stereotypes of marginalized groups and minorities: These phenomena, he proposes, emerge as natural by-products of ‘innocent’ cognitive processes and the structure of the so-called external information ecology. This cognitive-ecological framework assumes that we associate the members of other groups primarily with those characteristics that distinguish them from our own group. In external information ecology, however, such differences are most likely negative, so that minorities and marginalized groups have a general valuation disadvantage. This also means that resentment towards minorities and marginalized groups is a universal phenomenon that can arise regardless of people’s selfish intentions. This understanding serves as a fundamental first step towards overcoming such resentments.
Besides explaining how certain group-related attributions arise, this framework can for the first time provide an explanation why most existing stereotypes are negative. In news reporting, it can also explain why the recipients of information tend to overestimate the prevalence of negative attributes and behaviours among members of minority groups – such as refugees – and why attempts by politicians and journalists to counteract these impressions often have the opposite effect. ‘The ERC Starting Grant allows me to test my theoretical framework empirically, and, if successful, to fundamentally renew our understanding of some of the most pressing societal challenges of our time’, said Alves.