Who Is Responsible for Confronting Prejudice? The Role of Perceived and Conferred Authority

Abstract

Perceived responsibility for responding predicts whether people confront others’ discriminatory behavior, but who is seen as and actually feels responsible for confronting prejudice? Study 1 examined whether people view status-based authority figures, stigmatized targets, or other bystanders as responsible for confronting a witnessed prejudicial remark. Results revealed that participants viewed the authority figure as most responsible for responding, and they reported feeling less personally responsible in the presence of both authorities and targets. Study 2 examined whether being in a position of authority enhances perceptions of responsibility for responding to discrimination and, in turn, facilitates confrontation. Participants who were randomly assigned to a leadership (vs. non-leader control) condition witnessed a racially insensitive remark. Leadership increased perceived responsibility, but did not significantly increase confrontation. Study 3 builds on the previous two studies by showing that leaders in actual organizations feel more responsible for confronting prejudice compared to those who are not conferred authority status. These findings extend previous studies by uncovering an important antecedent (i.e., conferred authority) of feeling responsible for addressing prejudice, which is shown to be a key factor in predicting whether bystanders confront discrimination. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Participants were also asked to rate the observers in terms of how responsible they were for addressing the incident, using a single item (e.g., “To what extent is the RA responsible for addressing the [racist/sexist] remark) on a 7-point scale (1 = definitely is not responsible to 7 = definitely is responsible). Regrettably in hindsight, participants responded to different items based on their assigned condition. For example, those in the “target and RA present” condition completed items assessing perceived responsibility of each as well as an item assessing perceived responsibility of other bystanders who were present. Those in the “target present and RA absent” condition only completed items assessing perceived responsibility of the target and other bystanders, and so on. As a result, interpretation of the ratings data is less straightforward than that of the rankings data. However, we did conduct analyses when common dependent variables were present. It is noteworthy that when limiting the sample to participants who read a scenario in which both the RA and target group member were present, findings paralleled those of the rank order data. Specifically, results from this analysis showed that designated authority figures (M = 5.84, SD = 1.26) were viewed as significantly more responsible than stigmatized targets (M = 4.14, SD = 1.94; t(80) = 6.72, p < .001) for confronting. Additional findings are available from the corresponding author upon request.

  2. 2.

    We were also interested in whether leadership type (person- vs. task-oriented) affected personal responsibility and confrontation. Thus, our original leadership manipulation comprised three levels (person-oriented leader vs. task-oriented leader vs. non-leader control). Toward this end, participants read articles that described a person-oriented versus a task-oriented leader or read an article that did not pertain to leadership. Our attempt to prime leadership type was unsuccessful; the person- versus task-oriented leader conditions did not differ from each other in any of our analyses. Thus, we collapsed the person- versus task-oriented leadership conditions for all reported analyses and will not discuss leadership type further.

  3. 3.

    We also assessed whether, for people with supervisory roles at work, perceived responsibility for confronting prejudice increased as a function of the number of employees they supervised. Our reasoning was that number of supervisees might be a proxy for a supervisor’s status within the organization, and thus associated with a greater sense of authority and responsibility. Indeed, although we found this relationship after removing three extreme outliers for the number of supervisees reported, (r = .36, p < .04), it should be noted that this was based on a sample of only 36 participants, so this finding should be interpreted with caution.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Marie Danh, Peg Zizzo, Kristen Malone, and Laura Spice for their assistance in collecting and coding data for study 1; and Danny Applegate, Melissa Hammersly, Jonathon Kroenke, and Christian Entezari for their assistance in collecting and entering data for study 2.

Funding

The researchers were supported by funding from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program by the Center for Research and Learning at IUPUI (PI Lindsey) and the National Science Foundation (BCS-0951809, Co-PIs Ashburn-Nardo, Morris, and Goodwin).

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Correspondence to Leslie Ashburn-Nardo.

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Portions of this research were conducted in partial fulfillment of requirements for an undergraduate honors thesis, submitted by Alex Lindsey, to the Department of Psychology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

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Ashburn-Nardo, L., Lindsey, A., Morris, K.A. et al. Who Is Responsible for Confronting Prejudice? The Role of Perceived and Conferred Authority. J Bus Psychol 35, 799–811 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-019-09651-w

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Keywords

  • Prejudice
  • Confrontation
  • Discrimination
  • Leadership
  • Authority