A lot of us, and I include myself, spend time talking about other people’s prejudices and biases toward people with disabilities, different ethnic or religious identities, sexual orientations, etc. It is an easy way of dividing the world neatly into the the good guys and the bad guys, us and them. It allows us to be self-righteously intolerant of “the intolerant” as we discuss societal attitudes as if we were disembodied spirits suspended someplace above the fray. However comforting as it may be to pretend we are immune from the bad attitudes that infect others, it is neither accurate nor helpful. Katz’s Ambivalence Amplification Theory provides a somewhat darker, but more useful way of understanding stigma,bias, and discrimination.
Cartoonist Walt Kelly transformed Commodore Perry’s “we have met the enemy, and he is ours!” onto “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” Ambivalence Amplification Theory suggests that Kelly is right. Katz demonstrated through a series of experiments that the question of “who has bad attitudes?” needs to be reformulated into “when and under what conditions do prejudices emerge in some or all of us?” In Katz’s model, societal bias is like malaria and we are all infected. We may appear healthy, but given the right conditions, the disease flares up. None of us are entirely immune. Even people who are part of marginalized groups share some of the negative attitudes toward their own group and toward themselves. In Katz’s view, we are all ambivalent.
For most of us, as long as things go smoothly, our positive attitudes prevail, but when things go wrong, the negative attitudes come out. So what are the practical implications?
1. We will never solve all the problems of bias and stigma by using an us-versus-them paradigm.
2. We all need to continually examine our own attitudes.
3. Understanding context, is essential to understanding attitudes.
For more on ambivalence amplification see:
Examining conflicts between components of attitudes. Maio, Esses, & Bell (2000)
Stigma: A psychological perspective.(1981). I Katz