Why would anyone want to downplay the amount of discrimination their group faces? Shouldn’t every member of a stigmatized minority group be enraged that they are still discriminated against in 2019? Unfortunately, the social system that leads to discrimination is very good at reinforcing complacency. Research on women and people of color shows how difficult it is to stand up to discrimination against one’s group. As a society, we sometimes punish people who speak out, and individuals who speak out against injustice are often disliked.

In our research, Jaime Napier, Jojanneke van der Toorn, and I set out to consider an additional reason people may be motivated to downplay discrimination against their group. We wondered whether people downplay discrimination because it feels better to believe that your group is valued by society at large – to see the world through rose-colored glasses.

In a series of studies looking at lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and other sexual minorities, we compared the mental and physical health of members of those groups who were “minimizers” or “acknowledgers” of discrimination toward their groups. Acknowledgers of discrimination were more likely to have been diagnosed with depression, suffered lower self-esteem, and generally felt worse about their personal lives than minimizers.

And it wasn’t just mental health where acknowledgers and minimizers differed. The acknowledgers also had higher body mass index (meaning they were more likely to be overweight or obese) and were more likely to have been diagnosed with a physical illness (such as high blood pressure, hypertension, or asthma).  In summary, people who minimized the amount of discrimination they saw against sexual minorities were happier, heathier, less likely to be obese, higher in self-esteem, and less depressed, and they felt better about their lives overall.  Those rose-colored glasses seem to work.

However, we wondered whether the minimizers in our study saw less discrimination because there was less discrimination around them. In other words, maybe minimizers are happier because they actually face less discrimination. We examined this alternate hypothesis in two ways. 

First, we examined whether minimizers might tend to live in more tolerant and accepting parts of the United States, such as New York or California.  To test this idea, we compared the minimizers and acknowledgers within individual states. This means, for example, that we compared Georgians against each other, not against New Yorkers. Using objective measures of a state’s hostility toward sexual minorities, we found that minimizers still reported better health and were more satisfied with their lives wherever they lived. In fact, when it came to being overweight, minimizers in the hostile states benefited the most. The weight differences between minimizers and acknowledgers were bigger in states that were more hostile to these groups. In more accepting states, minimizers and acknowledgers weighed about the same.

The second way we examined this question was to look at whether acknowledgers were more likely to have personally experienced acts of discrimination.  Our data didn’t support that explanation either.   In fact, the more discrimination members of a sexual minority experienced, the more they benefited from minimizing discrimination. Among those who had experienced the most discrimination, the minimizers had fewer mental health illnesses and higher self-esteem, and even reported better social well-being than acknowledgers. In essence they had more to minimize and benefited more from doing so.

In summary, our data suggest that people who suffer the most discrimination might be happier and healthier if they minimize their stigma. 

However, minimizing discrimination comes at the cost of simultaneously supporting the system that stigmatized the person in the first place.  In other words, ignoring real evidence of discrimination and its effect -- such as sexual minority youth being four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers – can come at a real cost to society. Minimization in the face of discrimination is similar to palliative care in medicine. It may relieve pain, but it does nothing to treat the underlying problem. Thus, our research suggests another difficulty faced by victims of discrimination: what is best for them as individuals – minimizing discrimination – might not be best for the long-term well-being of their groups and society at large.

For Further Reading:
Suppes, A., Napier, J.L, & van der Toorn, J. (2018) The palliative effects of system justification on the health and happiness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 372-399.

Hatzenbuehler, M.L. (2014). Structural stigma and the health of lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 127-132.

Czopp, A.M., & Monteith, M.J. (2003). Confronting prejudice (literally): Reactions to confrontations of racial and gender bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 532-544.

Alexandra Suppes is a Research Associate at New York University, Abu Dhabi. Her research focuses on political psychology and the experience of stigmatized group members