Why the president’s anti-Muslim tweets could increase tensions

This last finding seems consistent with the belief shared among many religious Protestants that religious values and traditions are under attack in American society.

President Trump may be tapping into this increased anxiety.

Reaction to discrimination
A noteworthy aspect of our study is that we found that feeling targeted because of one’s religion may trigger defensive psychological reactions that can lead people to feel socially isolated and, perhaps ironically, fan the flames of intolerance.

We found that people who experienced more religious threat in our sample were less likely to feel that they belonged in the United States in general, or in their workplace or school. We found this to be true no matter what religion respondents belonged to.

This feeling of social isolation or ostracism can be interpreted by the brain in the same way as physical pain, suggesting the damaging potential of religious threat. Decades of research in social psychology also highlight how negative stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination can undermine mental and physical health.

We also found that in response to religious threats, people tend to discriminate against others. In our sample, people who experienced more religious threat also expressed more negative attitudes toward members of other religions.

Religious threat experiences may help to explain rising levels of religious intolerance, evidenced by increased hate crimes against religious minorities, calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and chants of “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville, Virginia’s “Unite the Right” rally.

Why prejudice can lead to more prejudice
Why would people who feel threatened respond by ratcheting up conflict?

Research in social psychology suggests that people draw a sense of self-worth from various social identities like race and religion. When the groups to which people belong are discriminated against, people feel threatened. This, in turn, could lead some to discriminate back. Indeed, responses may vary, depending, among other things, on a group’s social power. In our sample, for example, Muslims were least likely to show such a retaliatory response.

However, research by others – also conducted with Muslims – shows how the social isolation and perceived dehumanization that can accompany religious threat could actually contribute to religious radicalization and increase politically motivated violence.

In other words, when people perceive religious threat, it can have harmful societal consequences that can build over time.

The president’s tweets
Our research may also shed light on why President Trump shared anti-Muslim videos in the first place. As the White House press secretary said, his decision was a direct response to a perceived threat posed by Muslims. However, religious threat is not a one-way street.

Attacking Muslims is not likely to stop religious conflict, but instead increase religious tension by fostering a spiraling tit-for-tat of religious threat and prejudice that increases in severity over time. This type of cyclical process has long been documented by scholars. If people who feel discriminated against because of their religion retaliate by discriminating against other religions, religious intolerance is only going to snowball.

If President Trump really wants to stop religious violence, social psychology suggests he should refrain from it himself.

Michael Pasek is NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Pennsylvania State University. Jonathan Cook is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).