Prejudice predicts using the "free speech defense" when someone was fired for anti-Black comments, but not when someone was fired for anti-police comments. The lines represent regression lines in each condition, and the shaded regions around the lines represent 95% confidence intervals.


There's been many stories in the news about employees getting fired (or students being expelled) for saying racist things. How do people respond to these firings? Some say these terminations infringe on one's right to freedom of speech; others say that this use of "free speech" is a way to cover for racism. Across seven studies, Dr. Chris Crandall and I found that those who were likely to say that the firing or expulsion violates freedom of speech beliefs also tended to report more prejudice. Importantly, this only occurred when the firing was over racist speech. When it was against police, coworkers, road cyclists, or when we didn't even mention a firing, prejudice had no relation to how much people thought freedom of speech protected people from being fired for things they say on the Internet.

Why do people defend other people's racist speech? We find that it is because the firings make prejudiced people feel like they cannot "be themselves" or "say how they feel" and they "feel pressured" to have certain beliefs. In psychological terms, we call this expressive threat—people feel like they cannot express themselves. So how do they regain this feeling? They say, "Free speech!"

Dr. Crandall spoke with NPR's Shankar Vedantam about this research on the fabulous Hidden Brain podcast. This research was featured by New York Magazine and was published at Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Please e-mail me at if you would like to read the paper.


perceived "authenticity" and prejudiced statements

People often called Donald Trump "authentic" during his 2016 presidential campaign. But what do people really mean when they talk about authenticity? Dr. Chris Crandall and I thought that perhaps it was a way for people to say that they agree with a non-normative statement (like prejudiced statements) without actually saying that they agree—instead, they just call the person "authentic." Across two studies, we found that the more prejudiced someone was, the more they were likely to say that someone expressing these prejudices were being authentic, genuine, honest, and true to themselves. We found this with prejudice against Muslims, politicians, illegal immigrants, and Kansas State University students (the rival school of the University of Kansas, where the study was conducted).

We are currently conducting more studies to figure out why this phenomenon occurs. Is it because people tend to think others agree with them (i.e., social projection)? Is it because people call statements authentic the statements they wish they could say, but feel like they aren't allowed to?

Prejudice against Muslims predicts more perceived authenticity of anti-Muslim statements, but does not predict more perceived authenticity of control or anti-politician statements. Similarly, prejudice against politicians predicted more perceived authenticity of anti-politician statements alone.


After the election, participants said that they believed campaign related prejudices were more socially acceptable to have and express (compared to before the election). This did not occur for campaign unrelated prejudices. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals; because the comparison was within-subjects, the error bars substantially overlap, but the difference is still significant.

Donald Trump's election and norms about prejudice

Donald Trump spoke ill of many groups during his 2016 presidential campaign, including Muslims, Mexicans, illegal immigrants, people with disabilities, among others. Dr. Chris Crandall, fellow graduate student Jason Miller, and I asked the same participants a week before and a week after the election (November 8th) how socially acceptable they believed prejudice against multiple groups to be.

We divided these groups into two types of prejudice: campaign related (i.e., the groups mentioned above) and campaign unrelated (e.g., drug dealers, porn stars, alcoholics) prejudices. We found that participants reported they believed prejudices against campaign related groups were more socially acceptable after election than before the election. This did not occur for campaign unrelated prejudices, which means that that our participants did not just report more acceptability of prejudice in general after the election.

Our sample was about half Clinton supporters and half Trump supporters. Interestingly, we found this pattern of effects (shown to the left) equally for both Clinton and Trump supporters, suggesting that the effect isn't just driven by hyperbolic Clinton supporters believing that Trump has changed everything.

This research has been featured by Vox here and here; Dr. Crandall and I wrote about this research in a piece for Undark Magazine. This paper is currently under review for publication.


There is a lot of research on what makes people see some types of people as less human than others; most of it focuses on how either sexualization (e.g., of women) or disgust (e.g., felt toward racial minorities) leads to seeing people as less human than others. Dr. Ludwin Molina and I demonstrated that praise can ironically undermine perceived personhood. We show that praise, as long as it focuses primarily on one's body, causes people to see the targets of this praise as less capable of agency (e.g., exercising self-control, acting morally, remembering things, empathy, and planning for the future).

Participants in these studies read a description of a college basketball player. He was described in times of his mind (e.g., "he studies his opponents... he is an intelligent scorer"), in terms of his body (e.g., he "weighs 185 pounds, has a 6'5" wingspan... he can power past his defender"), or neither (e.g., "His favorite kind of food is Thai food, and he likes almost every type of music, except for country music"). People described in terms of their body were seen as less capable of human agency than the other descriptions. We found this across four studies.

This might have important policy implications: People who read the bodily description of the athlete saw him as less capable of human agency and, in turn, supported college athletes' rights less (e.g., unionization of college athletes).

This research was published in Social Psychology. Please e-mail me at if you would like to read the paper.

College basketball players described in terms of their body are seen as less agentic than those described in terms of their mind or generic personality characteristics. The dot represents the conditional mean, error bars represent 95% confidence intervals, and the shape depicts the distribution of responses within that condition.