How Verbal Aggression Transforms Into Prejudice

Contemporary humans are continuously and deeply immersed in the reality of online communication. News websites and social media provide information about politics, society, and everyday life. They also convey hatred and derogatory comments about other individuals and groups. Therefore, people are repeatedly exposed to hateful comments about immigrant groups and minorities.

This research explores how exposure to online hate speech affects majority’s attitudes toward the groups that are most commonly targets of such language (e.g., refugees, Muslims, gay people). The first survey study of 1,007 adults showed that frequent exposure to hate speech increases outgroup prejudice by decreasing people’s sensitivity to offensive language. The second study—an experiment performed in a laboratory setting—proved the causal effect of exposure to hate speech on prejudice. It also showed that frequent exposure to offensive language decreased people’s sensitivity to hate speech, and this in turn increased their prejudice as measured by social distance (i.e., unwillingness to accept minority members in their close environment). Finally, another large-scale survey of 682 adolescents confirmed that decreased sensitivity to hate speech, rather than the feeling of normlessness, is responsible for the effects observed in previous studies.

This set of three studies shows that derogatory language observed in people’s online environment changes their attitudes toward minority groups, refugees, and migrants. This pattern is visible among adults (Study 1), students (Study 2) and it is particularly strong among adolescents (Study 3). The psychological mechanism behind this pattern resembles desensitization, which is well-known from other studies on human aggression (e.g., Bartholow, Bushman, & Sestir, 2006; Carnagey, Anderson, Bushman, 2004; Krahé et al., 2011): people frequently exposed to hate speech lose sensitivity to offensive language, and this in turn leads to distancing from the groups that are targets of such language.

Bartholow, B.D., Bushman, B.J., & Sestir, M.A. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 532–539. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2005.08.006 

Carnagey, N.L., Anderson, C.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life in violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 489–496. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.003
Krahé, B., Möller, I., Huesmann, L.R., Kirwil, L., Felber, J., & Berger, A. (2011). Desensitization to media violence: Links with habitual media violence exposure, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 630-646. doi: 10.1037/a0021711