University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

What Prejudice Does

Belonging to a stigmatized group reduces the self-control students use regulate to their behaviour

Being the target of prejudice can affect your ability to control your behaviour, according to a study by Michael Inzlicht, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His groundbreaking research, published in the March 2006 issue of Psychological Science, charted how belonging to a stigmatized group drained the self-control of university students, leading them to perform poorly on tests.

Self-control is the mental effort that individuals use to regulate their behaviour, and it’s a limited resource. “Think of self-control as a pie,” says Inzlicht. “Once you’ve eaten it, it’s gone until you bake another.”

Students need a heaping helping of self-control. They have to discipline themselves to attend class and to take effective notes, says Inzlicht. They need to walk past that pickup game of touch football and straight into the library. “Belonging to a stigmatized group entails additional demands such as stress and uncertainty. It weakens your self-control,” he says.

While Inzlicht’s study mainly focused on black students at New York University, he says the findings apply here. “When I asked my students for examples of prejudice from their own lives, they easily came up with them.”

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