From the gender pay gap, to Black Lives Matter, to the rights of migrant workers, few topics seem to have dominated the news as much as social inequality. Even the COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed great disparities by gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

Many people witnessing these events will be moved to make a difference. What separates those who take steps to create an inclusive world from those who don’t?

It turns out that two personal characteristics are important. For a long time, we’ve known that social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism play a role in how people become prejudiced. But how do they encourage or prevent people from acting for social inclusion? First, let’s define these terms.

Social Dominance Orientation

Social dominance orientation (SDO) is the extent to which someone prefers some social groups over others, so that one group dominates and others are inferior. Someone high on SDO would agree with views like: “It is OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others.” At the other end of the continuum, someone low on SDO would believe in a more egalitarian society where all groups are equal.

Right-Wing Authoritarianism

Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) is the extent to which someone believes in sticking to traditional ways, having a strong authority figure, and keeping social order. Someone high on RWA would agree with views like: “Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs.” In contrast, someone low on RWA would be open to adopting new ideas and diverse viewpoints.

Often these two characteristics go hand in hand, and a highly prejudiced person might be high on both SDO and RWA. However, they are also distinct in many ways. For example, SDO might be more relevant when it comes to prejudice towards people perceived as being of lower status, like those below the poverty line.

On the other hand, RWA might be more relevant when it comes to prejudice towards people seen as dangerous or unconventional—political dissidents, for example.

SDO, RWA, and Social Inclusion

SDO and RWA are also major barriers when encouraging people to take up socially inclusive behaviors, but the story is less straightforward. As part of Inclusive Australia’s Social Inclusion Index Survey (an ongoing survey that tracks progress in social inclusion over time, now in its fifth wave since 2017), we surveyed more than 2,500 members of the Australian public. We asked them about their personality traits and attitudes as well as what activities they would do for an inclusive cause.

We found that there were three types of inclusive behaviors:

  • Small interpersonal gestures, for example, saying hello to someone from a different group or listening to the stories of those who are discriminated against. These are relatively costless, everyday things that we can do to make sure that others are included and that their voices are heard.
  • Volunteering for social inclusion, such as mentoring those who are disadvantaged.
  • Political action, such as organizing a demonstration or sending a letter to the government.

As you might expect, people were not equally likely to do all of these things. On average, they were most willing to take up small interpersonal gestures and least willing to undertake political action.

What’s more, we discovered that people’s willingness to do things for an inclusive cause was related to both SDO and RWA, but in different ways. Socially dominant people were less willing to engage in any of the types of inclusive behaviors—and especially the small gestures—compared with those who were more egalitarian.

On the other hand, RWA was only associated with opposition to political action. It seems that authoritarians are not necessarily resistant to social inclusion, unless it involves political acts that challenge the status quo.

How Can We Make Use of These Results?

What does this mean for changing behavior to encourage social inclusion? One of the basics of behavior change is to “make it easy” by removing costs or obstacles. For authoritarians, we may see the most success by getting people to start with small acts of inclusion, such as listening to the stories of marginalized groups. These may eventually spill over into more substantial action that leads to greater change. For people who are socially dominant, the solution may be more challenging. It may involve targeting the perceptions of a competitive world that lead people to hold these views in the first place.

This is a reminder that “one size doesn’t fit all” when finding a solution to a social problem. There are different routes to social inclusion and, to quote American historian Howard Zinn, “there is no act too small, no act too bold” when getting different people to do different things based on the views they hold. This may be the first step to ensuring the most impact when it comes to creating a more inclusive world.

For Further Reading

Zhao, K., Faulkner, N., Perry, R. (2020). Social Dominance Orientation, Right-Wing Authoritarianism, and willingness to carry out three domains of socially inclusive behaviors in a public campaign. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 20(1), 264-286.

Kun Zhao is a Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University. She works with government and industry organizations to promote behavior change for good.