Opportunity & Access

Brian S. Lowery: How Framing Impacts Views on Affirmative Action

Concern about group position and well-being can tilt peoples’ opinions against affirmative action policies, even if they want to help minorities.

January 01, 2008

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso

Affirmative action remains one of the most contentious issues in American society. Researchers typically suggest that that people who oppose it do so either because they think it’s inherently unfair — or quite simply because they’re racist.

But Brian Lowery thinks something more subtle is at play. “People may not support affirmative action because they’re concerned about their own group’s well-being,” he says. “It may be that someone would support a policy that helps women, blacks, or Latinos, for example, but fears that an affirmative action policy might hurt his group.”

Lowery, associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has found validation for this idea in a series of studies conducted with assistant professors Miguel M. Unzueta from UCLA, Eric D. Knowles from UC Irvine, and Atiba Goff from Pennsylvania State University. The results, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shed new light on why individuals might oppose affirmative action — and offer new insights into how such policies may be more effectively framed.

In one study, white participants were presented with four affirmative action policies. They were asked how they thought each would affect whites versus minorities and were asked to rate how much they would support each option. The policies included:

  • Hiring a minority, even if a white were more qualified
  • Hiring a minority as a “tiebreaker” where two candidates were equally qualified
  • Providing training to minority applicants to help them become better qualified, but not basing hires on race
  • Focusing on increasing minority applicants, but not basing hires on race

Lowery found that the more whites felt the policy helped minorities, the more they were willing to support it — but only when they thought it would not hurt members of their own group. Recruitment and training, which were seen as milder policies, therefore received more support than policies perceived to help minorities at the expense of whites. “It appears from these results that people can separate out the issues of helping minorities and hurting whites, showing that racism isn’t always the issue,” says Lowery.

A second study looked at how responses to affirmative action differed when outcomes were framed in terms of how they affected whites versus blacks. In this case, the policy was a mild one designed to increase the number of black applicants but not make hires based on race. Participants were asked to rate the fairness of the policy and were also surveyed on the degree to which being white was an important part of their own identity.

One group was told that it had reduced the representation of white employees from 90 to 82 percent of the company’s workforce. The other group was given the exact same information, but in terms of how it affected blacks — that it had increased the number of black employees from 5 to 13 percent.

The higher participants scored on white-group identity measures, the less supportive they were of the affirmative action policy when they were told the policy reduced the percentage of white employees. That is, being told the policy decreased the percentage of white employees apparently sent up a flag that the policy had hurt whites. The same group also perceived the policy to be less fair. In contrast, the group that was told how the policy benefited blacks did not show differences in their response to the policy, regardless of how white-group identified they were. In a third and related study, when participants were told that white employment remained entirely unaffected by the new policy, they also supported it regardless of how white-group identified they were.

Extrapolating from the results, Lowery says, “White people may say, and believe, they’re not supporting affirmative action because it creates inequities, but in many cases, the reason they think it’s unfair is because they think it’s hurting their group.” What’s missing, he says, is the recognition that in some situations one group’s disadvantage is another group’s advantage. Reducing unfair discrimination against blacks will increase their representation and simultaneously reduce the representation of whites.

“I chose the numbers in the study precisely to reflect the fact that the new policy allowed for employee ratios to become more representational of national demographics,” Lowery said. “So, essentially, the policy was correcting the unfair advantage that whites had had all along.”

“Typically,” he adds, “people suggest they oppose affirmative action because they think that actively hiring minorities over equally or less-qualified whites is unfair. However, this study used a weak policy — just attempting to increase blacks applicants — and still, you see perceptions that it was unfair. In this case, affirmative action is perceived to be unfair because it is believed to hurt whites.”

The studies demonstrate that everyone has a stake in affirmative action. “It’s not as if whites — and white men, in particular — are ‘outside’ and objectively evaluating such policies,” Lowery says. “Nor is it necessarily that they’re opposing these policies because they are expressing racist attitudes. Their concern about their group’s position and well-being can have an effect on how they respond — even if they may want to help minorities and women.”

Lowery’s studies have important implications for managers interested in adopting affirmative action policies. “It’s important how you frame the policies to your constituents,” he says. “If you present them as somehow hurting whites and white males, you’re going to get less support than if you present them as benefiting minorities. Also, instead of solely focusing on reducing discrimination against women and minorities you also need to create awareness that by discriminating against minorities and women, the organization also inadvertently advantaged whites. New research I’m doing suggests that individuals are more willing to accept policies that reduce their group’s opportunities when they understand that.”

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