Česky English Deutsch Francais
Study indicates ethnic hate is contagious
06-06-2018 - Daniela Lazarova
Why do ethnic conflicts in some parts of the world flare up so easily and spread so fast? Is ethnic hate and intolerance contagious? Researchers from the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined forces to try to find the answers to some of those questions and arrived at some surprising conclusions. I spoke to Associate Professor Michal Bauer, an expert on experimental and behavioral economics at CERGE-EI, who is one of the authors of the study, and began by asking him what motivated the research in this field.

Michal Bauer, photo: archive of Charles University “The original motivation for thinking about this question is the observation that a lot of real-life conflicts often arise out of nothing. Different groups live next to each other for a long time and then something snaps, something occurs and inter-community hostilities spread. So what we tried to do was that in a controlled experimental environment we tried to measure how easy it is to change individuals’ hostile or destructive behaviour towards an ethic minority.”

How did you do that? Who did you work with and what kind of experiment was it?

“The experiment took place in Eastern Slovakia, in around 15 localities, typically in villages or smaller towns in which the Roma minority and Slovak majority live together, and the participants were adolescents from local schools.”

And how did you measure the degree of ethnic hostility?

“We used modern techniques of experimental economics. If one wanted to measure hostile behavior or attitudes by asking questions in a survey one would very likely not get a truthful answer, so we used incentivized tasks in which the participants make choices which impact their own rewards and the rewards of somebody else. We used a game in which a contestant receives rewards or money and he or she is asked to make a decision whether to sacrifice one’s own reward in order to harm the other person even more. When people pay to harm someone else, we can measure individual willingness to harm somebody, and in this case destroying someone else’s resources is really nasty, because I need to pay in order to harm somebody.”

And teenagers influenced each other in making these decisions?

“That’s right. What we tried to look at were essentially two things. We tried to measure the extent of discrimination towards the Roma as compared to an anonymous person from the Slovak group by providing information about who is the experimental counterpart, who is the person that will get harmed by the decision. And by looking at the differences between these different types of partners we can measure discrimination. Now to get to the main question about how one can identify the influence of peers, the participants made choices in groups of three individuals and they made choices sequentially, so some of the subjects were making decisions after observing that somebody from their own group was behaving non-destructively, while others were making decisions after observing that somebody from their own group was being hostile to the other person. And the question was to what extent the behavior of my peers was going to affect my own behavior. That’s the crucial measure we used to identify the effect of spreading of hostile behavior – i.e. to what extent I’m going to copy, or conform to what my classmates are doing.”

Are individuals so vulnerable then, to peer-influence?

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio “Yes, it turns out that peers matter a lot. For instance, the prevalence of hostile behavior, if I see that my class mate is non-aggressive is around 17 percent, while the prevalence of destruction increases to more than 70 percent, if I am acting after observing a destructive classmate. So peers have a very strong influence, especially if the decision impacts a member of the Roma minority, then the extent of conformism is more than twice as large.”

Is this something deeply inherent? Is this how bullying starts?

“That’s a very good question and it is hard to say at this moment from just this particular study. We would need more data about how generalizable this is. There is some indication from a follow-up study we conducted in the same setting that looks at the social appropriateness of harming somebody, essentially how people perceive social norms and what we see is that the social norm regulating hostile behavior towards my own group is relatively stable. People pretty much always –independently of what their classmates are doing – consider destructive behavior as an act that is not socially desirable, while this perception is more fragile when it comes to hostile behavior towards the Roma.”

So, if I understand you correctly, this is translatable –or applicable –to conflicts in other countries as well?

“I think it is still an open question since the data that we have are from one study, at the same time there are indications from other studies that would point in this direction. Let me give you one example. If we look at the situation in the UK after the Brexit vote, one interesting observation in crime data is that the prevalence of hate crime increased by around 50 percent after this aggressive campaign against immigrants. This again suggests that it is relatively easy to change social norms of behavior against individuals from different groups.”

You worked with teenagers, but what you are saying now would suggest that the same applies to different age groups as well …

“Yes, we studied teenagers. Again, we do not have hard data to test this, but it would be very interesting to see if this applies to adults as well. From other types of studies it seems that there are some social spillovers; that hostility is easy to spread even among adults.”

Illustrative photo: Venca24, Wikimedia CC BY 4.0 Is that what populist politicians bank on, when they lead anti-migrant or anti-ethnic campaigns?

“Yes, that assumption is very consistent with what we find –if politicians are aware of the social inflammability of being aggressive towards ethnic outgroups then that may explain why certain types of politicians – in literature they are called “entrepreneurs of hatred” - often choose to have aggressive political campaigns towards migrants or other minority groups.”

So would this research also explain the wave of anti-migrant sentiments in some parts of Europe today?

“I think a lot of people in Europe are worried by politicians playing this card –focusing on the fear of migrants – worried that it might be relatively easy to change people’s attitude towards migrants. I earlier mentioned this example –the increased prevalence of hate crime following the aggressive campaigns in favour of Brexit that focused on migrants. That is consistent with the idea that people’s attitude towards migrants may be easily changed. I think one of the exciting questions for future research would be to look at whether the contagious nature of the hostility that we see towards the Roma –whether the same holds for other groups, for instance migrating groups, maybe whether it interacts with previous experience with those groups, meaning whether the tendency to follow others’ aggressive behavior can be mitigated by previous contact and knowledge of those groups.”

Did you also consider how to counterbalance or stifle this aggression? I saw in one of your articles an emphasis on the strict punishment of hate crimes. If individuals see hate crimes swiftly punished would they not be less inclined to violence themselves?

“One implication of what we find is that essentially the social cost of being hostile to hate crimes against people of a different ethnicity is considerable, because they can cause the quick spread of destruction. This implies that it may be optimal for societies to have hate crime laws that punish more severely ethnically or religiously motivated hate crimes. What we have studied is a stylized experiment, but it implies that the social costs of this type of anti-social behavior are particularly large. Another implication is that essentially early diagnosis appears to be very important –it seems important to focus on the first signs of inter-ethnic tensions because they may easily spread among others and it may be too late to start fighting them at a later stage.”

Illustrative photo: Alexander Popelier / freeimages Your study was the first of its kind on the subject, was it not?

“Our study essentially offers a methodology how to study the spread of hostilities in a controlled environment. There have been a lot of great studies that looked at whether people discriminate in normal circumstances when they make choices on their own and whether discrimination exists in different societies against different groups – what this study is offering is an experimental method focusing on the question, not just whether discrimination exists in normal circumstances, but also how easy it is to trigger discrimination in a social environment depending on what others are doing from my own group.”

Is this not a strange area of study for economists?

“I think economists are increasingly open to thoughts from other fields and they try to offer some of their tools to systematically test the importance of some of the concepts that have been developed by other social sciences and I think it is a fruitful exchange. But you are certainly right that this is not a standard economic topic –it is a topic at the intersection of fields.”

What about other triggers or roots of ethnic hatred – will you be investigating them as well? Do you plan to take this further?

“We are thinking about other directions. One potentially interesting question could be related to whether people are inclined to punish collectively – if somebody does something bad to somebody else whether people hold responsible only the given individual or also all those who look similarly as the perpetrator –ie. belong in a given group. Another interesting question relating to triggers could be whether economic conditions influence people’s willingness to act anti-socially, stress factors. A lot of conflicts seem to happen after economic crises or negative income shocks and the question is whether these economic shocks have certain psychological effects, either by creating stress or through some other channels that make people more likely to act anti-socially. I think these are all exciting questions and hopefully we’ll get some answers in the years to come.”

Related articles
01.08.2017Romany rapper Radek Banga to receive František Kriegel Award for civic courageNews
08.12.2016Project aimed at fighting hate crime acquires fresh urgency in light of migrant crisisNews
14.11.2016Romany soccer team face hatred more or less all the time, says FC Roma co-director Tomáš BojarNews
08.02.2016Far-right focus on migrants taking heat of Roma at least for now, says Czechs Against Czechs maker Tomáš KratochvílNews
28.10.2015A foreign influenceNews
08.09.2014Lukáš Houdek, a photographer, writer and curator tackling prejudices head-onNews
12.09.2013Brochures for schools to help combat racial prejudice and extremismNews
23.08.2013Extremists relying increasingly on internet to whip up anti-Roma sentimentsNews
31.07.2013Mainstream antipathy to Roma bigger threat than far right, warms Czech intelligenceNews
29.07.2013Lukáš Houdek, a photographer, writer and curator tackling prejudices head-onNews
04.07.2013České Budějovice braces for more violence as new anti-Roma demo calledNews
01.07.2013Anti-Roma riots in České Budějovice point to extremist trendNews
30.05.2013Demonstration in Duchcov sparks fears of renewed violenceNews
29.05.2013Survey indicates strong anti-Roma sentiment among Czech childrenNews
18.04.2013Is the Czech media helping give Romanies a bad name?News
08.04.2013AI launches Europe-wide campaign to end discrimination against RomaNews
30.11.2012Education ministry planning effective action against discrimination of Romanies in the education systemNews
13.11.2012Students highlight segregation in education during Roma WeekNews
27.09.2012Jakub Polák, doyen of the Czech anarchist scene, dies aged 60News
05.06.2012Students in survey perceive Roma to be biggest ‘problem’News
24.05.2012Roma attack on teen, that brought thousands into the streets, never happenedNews
21.03.2012Concert, screening at Prague’s Lucerna to mark day against racismNews
07.03.2012Study warns of possible new attacks against Roma as neo-Nazi movement gains tractionNews
11.01.2012Extremist lawyer claims judicial expert biased because of Jewish backgroundNews
03.10.2011Roma rights advocate Gwendolyn Albert on anti-Romany rallies, poverty and the government’s strategy in combating social exclusionNews
23.09.2011Ethnic tensions rack north Bohemian town of VarnsdorfNews
19.09.2011Prime and Labor Minister highlight importance of social reform in solving Šluknov district’s racial tensionsNews
12.09.2011Police intervene in attack of far-right extremists and locals against Romany housing unit in VarnsdorfNews
05.09.2011Extremist groups aim to benefit from social unrest in North BohemiaNews
29.04.2011Brno braces itself for Sunday’s neo-Nazi marchNews
09.11.2010Czech human rights groups say no action taken to end schools discrimination against Roma three years after landmark rulingNews
21.10.2010Czech president surprised by long terms for neo-Nazis convicted over petrol-bomb attack on Romany homeNews
20.10.2010Court hands tough sentences to Romany family’s attackersNews
06.10.2010State attorney demands exemplary sentences for neo-Nazis in arson-attack caseNews
29.06.2010Suspected arsonist caught on tape praising ‘dudes’ who shot Hungarian RomaNews
11.05.2010Trial of four accused of racially-motivated attempted murder beginsNews
20.04.2010Popular Czech children’s book under fiver over racist undertonesNews
06.04.2010Police investigate latest attack against RomaniesNews
30.03.201085,000 join Facebook campaign against voluntary Romani lessons in schoolsNews
16.03.2010Police mobilised to investigate Ostrava arson attack on Roma familyNews
10.02.2010Police to form new riot squads to combat growing extremismNews
13.01.2010Amnesty International: discrimination of Romany children persists in Czech schoolsNews
10.12.2009Report suggests Czech Roma suffer more discrimination than any other minority in EUNews
05.12.2009Police arrest man over racist publicationNews
03.12.2009Child victim of racist firebomb attack released from hospital after miracle recoveryNews
10.11.2009TV program to spotlight ‘Roma-phobia’News
19.10.2009Women against Racism protest Saturday 24 October in PragueNews
02.09.2009NGOs call for action in the face of persisting discrimination of Romany children in schoolsNews
20.07.2009Czech heavy metal singer accused of racism over latest albumNews
23.06.2009Jekhetane Roma (UK) calls on Czech PM Fischer to address the situation of Roma in the Czech RepublicNews
15.06.2009Police clamp down on neo-Nazi protesters around the countryNews
04.06.2009Top Czech Radio Roma reporter applies for asylum in CanadaNews
21.05.2009Czech Television put on the spot over anti-Roma election clipsNews
23.04.2009Romanies call for nation-wide rallies to condemn racist attacks on their communityNews
21.04.2009Will the government’s proposals to stamp out extremism work?News
21.04.2009Romanies calling on government for protection in the wake of vicious arson attackNews
16.09.2008Deputy PM's Roma plan raises eyebrowsNews
23.04.2008Senator accused of defamation retains political immunityNews
22.04.2008The Czech Republic and the rise of social exclusionNews
08.04.2008Exhibition of 30 racist murders since 1989 marks International Romani DayNews
14.01.2008Čunek in trouble again after suggesting Roma families perpetuate social exclusionNews
14.11.2007Landmark ruling finds Czech state guilty of violating rights of Roma school childrenNews
11.07.2007Senator in hot water after secret recording captures racist remarksNews
10.04.2007Deputy PM facing mounting pressure to step downNews
08.04.2007Are the Deputy Prime Minister's offensive remarks about the Roma influencing ordinary citizens?News
03.04.2007International Roma Day celebrations underway in PragueNews
02.04.2007Deputy PM Cunek in hot water yet again after comments about RomaNews
12.01.2007Citizens initiative seeks anti-discrimination lawNews
30.11.2006European monitoring centre says more effort is needed to integrate Romany minorityNews
03.11.2006Vsetin mayor at centre of race storm after evicting Romanies from centreNews
23.03.2005'Wired' Czech Romani women win racial discrimination casesNews
13.12.2004Czech Roma discriminated by UK authorities, say Law LordsNews
11.12.2004A 'joke' gone too far?News
02.12.2004Government approves anti-discrimination billNews
20.05.2004Police treating attack on Romany family as racially motivatedNews
12.03.2004Youth crushed by train while attacking Romanies - pressNews
08.01.2004Light sentences for racist attack come under fireNews
01.10.2003Tolerance 2003 campaign aims at fighting racismNews
22.09.2003Foreign Ministry to host seminar on discriminationNews
19.08.2003Klara Vesela-Samkova: I won't give up battle for Constitutional CourtNews
29.03.2002Skinhead gets 13 years for murder of Romany manNews
21.02.2002Man gets two years for attack on Roma familyNews
16.02.2002"Poem" circulating about racially-motivated murderNews
14.02.2002Counseling for Roma advisorsNews
11.02.2002Czech Roma want Council on Roma Affairs dissolvedNews
06.02.2002Five convicted for petrol bomb attack on Roma familiesNews
23.12.2000Court rules anti-Roma attack not racially motivatedNews
26.02.2000Racially-Motivated CrimeRacism
26.02.2000Usti nad Labem / Maticni StreetNews about Roma life
26.02.2000Opinion shows that Czechs do not believe wall in Usti nad Labem is a racial issueNews
26.02.2000One year since a murder of Sudanese student Hassan Elamin AbdelradiRacism and Discrimination
26.02.2000Czech Roma in the NewsRoma in Society
01.09.1999Twelve arrested after attack on Roma community in South MoraviaNews
20.08.1999Court reopens Roma caseNews
19.08.1999Growing ExtremismNews
16.08.1999Roma race trial continuesNews
11.08.1999American Daily labels Czechs as RacistNews
10.08.1999Will the United Kingdom introduce visa restrictions for Czech citizens?News
09.08.1999President Havel on Interethnic RelationsNews
16.06.1999Rights Group to Sue MinistryNews
26.05.1999Opinion shows that Czechs do not believe wall in Usti nad Labem is a racial issueNews
A Personal Account by Anna PolakovaPersonalities
Format for printing
Send as e-mail

Also in section "News"
31.10.19  Roma children’s choir Chavorenge and members of the Czech Philharmonic to perform in UK
13.09.19  Archaeologists discover graves of Roma persecuted during WWII in Lety camp
02.06.19  Ida Kelarová and her Romany children’s choir Chavorenge
29.05.19  Two Roma activists to receive Charter 77’s František Kriegel Award
07.04.19  Romany music from the Czech Republic
13.03.19  Czech singer Věra Bílá, dubbed the Ella Fitzgerald of Gypsy music, dies days before her comeback tour
21.11.18  Roma social worker from Ostrava listed on BBC 100 Women list
12.10.18  Why are there so few Roma politicians?
17.09.18  Virtuoso pianist Tomáš Kačo: When I tell somebody I’m a Gypsy in the US, they’re excited about it
24.11.17  Council of Europe commissioner welcomes Lety pig farm deal
Archive of the section

Most popular articles
3153053   26.02.00 Some Basic Information about the Roma Population in the Czech Republic
290319   27.01.05 The 'Devouring': A look at the Romani Holocaust
184516   26.02.00 The History and Origin of the Roma
141463   26.02.02 The Language of the Roma
107706   13.06.00 The History of the Roma Minority in the Czech Republic
105260   26.02.00 The Traditional Family Life of the Czech Roma
103929   02.06.03 The Roma Holocaust
88238    World famous Roma Personalities
88174   21.02.04 Extreme right activists demonstrate for skinhead in jail
74801    Photographs by Romani Children
Copyright © Český rozhlas / Czech Radio, 1997-2023
Vinohradská 12, 120 99 Praha 2, Czech Republic