White Americans will support multiculturalism as a general goal, but when it comes to the details of how to implement a multicultural society some will hesitate according to one recent and comprehensive study.

The authors took into account four separate lines of research:

  1. Social cognitive construal theory shows that when people construe things at an abstract level (i.e. why something is important) versus at a concrete level (i.e. how it can be done), then judgments, attitudes and behaviors are impacted.
  2. Sociological research on the principle-implementation gap has found people sometimes support principles of racial equality while also opposing the means of achieving it.
  3. Social identity theory research demonstrates that people often take an “us vs. them” approach, building up their own group, and seeing their group as the norm.
  4. Psychological work on political orientation (liberal vs. conservative) has found that:

    Changes to the status quo are perceived as particularly threatening to conservatives, as shown by a decade of research in political psychology; conservatives manage threat and uncertainty by gravitating toward the tradition and stability provided by the status quo.

The authors also discussed the notion of “national identity threat” as “a form of symbolic threat, that is, threat to one’s national culture, values, and worldview.” And they distinguished this from “resource threat,” which is “competition for scarce resources and threat to the ingroup’s political and economic power.”

Then they carried out three experiments designed to tease out how construal (abstract vs. concrete) of multiculturalism affected both the attitudes of white Americans towards Hispanic Americans and the willingness of white Americans to interact with Hispanic Americans. Furthermore, they looked at how factors of national identity threat, resource threat, and political orientation mediated in the process.

In the first experiment, white American college students were given one of three essays to read: either one about multiculturalism construed in an abstract manner (abstract condition); or one about multiculturalism construed in a concrete manner (concrete condition), or one about nature reserves as part of American heritage (control condition).

The abstract essay emphasized the “why” of multiculturalism. For example:

Each ethnic group within the United States can contribute in its own unique way. Recognizing this diversity would help to build a sense of harmony and complementarity among the various ethnic groups.

Research on abstract vs. concrete construals shows that asking “why” leads into greater levels of abstraction, while asking “how” leads to more concrete details. The concrete essay accordingly focused on the “how” of multiculturalism. For example:

Multiculturalism can be achieved if we collectively support the ability of ethnic minorities to speak languages other than English in the workplace, school, and other public arenas.

Prior research found the essays were actually perceived as either abstract or concrete, respectively.

After reading the essays, participants were asked either to list 5 reasons multiculturalism was important (abstract condition) or list 5 reasons how multiculturalism could be achieved (concrete condition), and finally to compare their list to a list supplied by the researchers and check off where the two lists agreed.

Then, under the pretense of a separate study, participants completed a set of 27 questions designed to measure attitudes toward Hispanic Americans.

The findings showed that people given the abstract construal of multiculturalism showed less prejudice toward Hispanic Americans in comparison to the control group, and people given the concrete construal showed greater prejudice.

In a second experiment, the researchers followed the same procedure but added a set of statements that participants responded to using a 7-point (agree-disagree) scale. The statements were designed to assess the participants’ feelings about multiculturalism as a threat to national identity, and included the following:

It is important that Americans preserve the cultural traditions passed down from our European forefathers in order to avoid blurring the boundaries between what is American and what is foreign.

People who live in the U.S. and follow their own cultural customs have a detrimental effect on American culture.

Bilingual education will weaken national unity in America

(Plus three more similar statements.)

The researchers hypothesized that:

When White Americans read about specific diversity policies aimed at achieving multicultural goals, it highlights how the American mainstream, which is prototypically European American at present, will change if diverse cultural practices enter the mainstream—making many White perceivers feel threatened that mainstream American values, practices, and worldview are in danger of being eroded. Increased threat, in turn, is predicted to increase prejudice against racial and ethnic minority groups. However, national identity threat is less likely to be evoked when White Americans read about abstract goals of multiculturalism in broad brushstrokes. Because an abstract construal stays away from specific policies that challenge the national prototype and articulates only why multiculturalism enriches American society, it is likely to make salient general values of social inclusion, reduce White Americans’ perceptions of diverse cultural practices as threatening, and in turn reduce prejudice.

The findings supported the authors’ hypothesis. Abstract vs. concrete construals again impacted the degree of prejudice the white American participants expressed toward Hispanic Americans. Furthermore, those in the abstract condition perceived multiculturalism as less threatening to national identity and those in the concrete condition perceived it as more threatening compared to the control group. Using a statistical procedure, the researchers confirmed that national identity threat mediated the outcome.

Having twice shown the impact of abstract versus concrete construals of multiculturalism on prejudiced attitudes, the researchers added several features to their third and final experiment. First, they used a broader community sample of white Americans as participants. Then they changed the way the construal variable was operationalized. All participants read the same essay about multiculturalism. Those in the abstract condition were then asked to write about the broad goals of multiculturalism. After that they were asked to give four reasons for pursuing multiculturalism. Finally, for each reason they named, they were asked to say why. When they replied with an answer, they were again asked “why” (like a familiar child’s game). In the concrete condition, participants performed a similar task, but focused on strategies and asking “how.”

Like before, the researchers measured perceived threat to national identity. They also measured two new variables to see if they mediated attitudes as well.

They included a measure of national resource threat:

Participants reported the extent to which they perceived diverse ethnic groups as consuming American resources and public services by rating the extent to which they thought diverse ethnic groups were increasing versus decreasing “job losses in the U.S.,” “the availability of social services in the U.S.,” and “the level of crime in the U.S.”

And they added a measure of political ideology (liberal vs. conservative).

Finally, in addition to again asking about attitudes, they also assessed the willingness of the white American participants to interact with Hispanic Americans by asking a set of seven questions: e.g. would they “Accept a Hispanic American person as a neighbor,” “Accept a Hispanic American person as a co-worker,” etc.

Cut to the chase. White Americans receiving the concrete construal of multiculturalism displayed more prejudice. Same as before. They also indicated less willingness to interact with Hispanic Americans.

Also like before, the concrete construal of multiculturalism was linked to greater perceived threat of multiculturalism to national identity. However, threat to national resources was found not to differ regardless of whether multiculturalism was construed in either abstract or concrete terms.

Political ideology (liberal vs. conservative) proved to be significant. It turns out conservatives showed the greatest impact of abstract and concrete construals. When multiculturalism was presented in abstract terms, liberal and conservative white Americans both showed the same low level of prejudice and were generally willing to interact with Hispanic Americans. But when multiculturalism was construed in concrete terms, conservatives displayed elevated levels of prejudice and greater unwillingness to interact. Liberals were relatively unaffected.

The authors summarize it thus:

This increased prejudice and social distancing is driven by the fear that diverse cultural values and practices threaten the value, meaning, and distinctiveness of what it means to be American. In comparison, when political liberals are asked to consider the two construals of multiculturalism, their threat perceptions, and their attitudes and behavioral intentions toward ethnic minorities are unaffected.

Some of the researchers’ findings may seem obvious to the organizational change practitioner, such as the idea that conservative white people will likely resist policies supporting multiculturalism in the workplace. But there are subtle implications that managers and change agents need to take into account.

It may be easier to sell a program of multiculturalism than to implement it. In the “sales” phase, one might naturally concentrate on matters of “Why.” It’s only when it comes to implementation that matters of “How” must be discussed. If one has experienced widespread acceptance of a proposed program, they may be surprised when resistance later emerges as actual procedures are brought forward.

In a similar way, it will likely be easier to change appearances that speak to broad goals, such as public images (e.g. faces on brochures), mission statements, and adding DEI roles, than it will be to change operating policies and procedures. Again, initial success should not be seen as a guarantee that resistance will not emerge later.

That resistance is likely to come from politically conservative white people. The authors suggest:

One solution to this problem may involve promoting concrete policies that reassure political conservatives that multiculturalism is not changing the very essence of the national group by including the perspective of their ethnic ingroup as well…. Future research should explore the impact of portraying concrete multicultural policies while explicitly reassuring conservatives that their group is included within this framework.

While the authors focus on national identity threat, it’s not hard to imagine that people might be similarly threated by a change to their organizational identity. If one has worked someplace for years, only to find “all the rules are changing,” then a similar resistance would likely emerge. We suggest one important and early step may be to identify and articulate a small set of superordinate values and goals that will remain constant even in the midst of ongoing change.

Yogeeswaran, K., & Dasgupta, N. (2014). The devil is in the details: Abstract versus concrete construals of multiculturalism differentially impact intergroup relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(5), 772–789. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0035830