What is regarded as 'hate crime' has largely been studied from a sociological and criminological perspective and is still an area of much debate. Indeed, Jacobs and Potter (1998) became one of the first group of researchers to argue that 'hate crime' may not even be about hate at all, but should be considered to be a form of 'bias or prejudice', and this is a view that is now widely accepted within the study of 'hate crime'.
However, very few studies on 'hate crime' have brought a Social Psychological perspective to the debate, despite the fact that social psychology has had a long research interest in bias and prejudice stretching back more than a 100 years. So, if 'hate crime' is better described as being bias or prejudice, then a social psychological perspective may have much to add to field of 'hate crime', particularly for 'hate crime' committed against perceived disabilities.
Public attitudes towards disability have been often been argued to be improving. However, measuring public attitudes towards disability is arguably not a straightforward process, and very much dependent on individuals expressing their true feelings and beliefs. Especially, when those feelings and beliefs may be influenced by 'sensitivity' surrounding the topic under investigation, and to some degree, influenced by authoritative knowledge or media and political discourse surrounding the topic.
Disability hate crime & negative media reporting
Over the past number of years, disability hate crime has been considered to be have been caused by negative political rhetoric or negative media coverage concerning disability benefit fraud in the UK, allegedly motivating a barrage of abuse, harassment or violence upon the disabled (as a backlash to these stories).
It may have certainly come as a bit of a shock to many politicians and media moguls, blamed for indiscriminate abuse, harassment and violence 'suddenly' unleashed upon disabled people within the UK. Incidents reported to include disabled adults being deliberately tipped out of wheelchairs and 'told get up and walk', or walking aids being kicked away from people who use them, and individuals with a perceived mental disability barred from entering shops or 'spat' upon in the street.
This must have been particularly disconcerting as we often hear politicians and the press proudly talk about how public 'attitudes' towards disability have been steadily improving over the years. If this is so, then negative media reporting and political rhetoric over disability benefit fraud may have (intentionally or unintentionally) eroded some of the good work done in promoting equality issues and improving public attitudes towards disability.
However, while such abuse and violence are assumed to be motivated by heavy handed political or media ideology aimed at changing Britain's 'benefit culture', these is currently very little empirical evidence to be draw a direct correlation between negative media reporting over disability benefit fraud and disability hate crime.
That is not to say that abuse and violence cannot be triggered by negative discourse over disability benefit fraud, but undoubtedly, much of the abuse and violence directed towards perceived disability existed long before negative media reports of benefit fraud appeared. And, it is abuse, harassment and violence committed within a society where attitudes towards the disabled are often argued to be getting better, not worse - but where reports of actual 'behavior' towards the disabled often tell a completely different story.
Attitudes as an unreliable predictor of behavior
Official Home Office estimates put the number of disability hate crimes in the UK at around 65,000 per year, and although these figures are often argued not to be increasing year upon year, they are also not getting any less.
So why are reported 'attitudes' towards disability often argued to be improving, when actual 'behavior' towards the disabled show high levels of abuse, harassment and violence
The relationship between attitudes and behavior are actually a very controversial and contested area. While people automatically 'assume' that most behavior is driven by an internally held 'attitude', and that behavior will therefore automatically follow on from that held attitude, this relationship has often been argued to be unreliable.
In general, while it is accepted that 'attitudes' are something that occur 'internally' within individuals as opposed to behavior which may defined as an overt and measurable response, a whole industry has been built up around measuring people's attitudes and opinions towards a vast variety of subjects and topics, as a 'proxy' measure of behavior.
However, as far back as the 1930's, this 'proxy measure' of behavior has often been found to be unreliable, and LaPiere (1934) was one of the first to conduct studies on the relationship between attitudes and behavior, producing empirical evidence to suggest that attitudes may indeed not be a good predictor of behavior. Results that have also been found many times since.
Researchers have presented many different explanations for apparent discrepancies between attitudes and behavior, the most popular of which argue that attitudes are such complex phenomena, that some evaluative measures of attitudes do not always do justice to this complexity (Rosenberg and Hovland 1960). Simply put, some studies of attitudes may be inaccurate because they in effect, too simple a measure.
Therefore, an 'ABC' model of attitudes subsequently became developed, putting forward a model, containing three basic components of 'attitudes':
1. Affective component: this involves a person's feelings / emotions about an object. For example: "I am scared of..."
2. Cognitive component: this involves a person's belief / knowledge about an attitude object. For example: "I believe..."
3. Behavioral component: the way the attitude we have influences how we act or behave. For example: "I will avoid ..."
These three dimensions are believed to be interconnected and are assumed to accurately predict behavior when all three are work in 'rational' combination with each other. For example, I am scared of spiders, as I believe they will bite me, so I will avoid contact with spiders. However, 'cognitive' and 'affective' components of attitudes may not always match up so well. For example, a person who believes that disabled people are equal to the able-bodied, may also actually fear illness and disability for some reason and may therefore behave in a negative manner towards disability, by avoidance or exclusion.
This complexity is caused because of complex nature of people themselves, where many different variables may be at play concerning attitudes and behavior, and where any number of these could potentially disrupt the relationship between the cognitive and affective components of attitudes.
For example, one notable variable which may affect behavior is 'attitude accessibility', meaning that those attitudes that can be recalled from memory more easily, are often expressed more quickly (Eagly and Chaikan 1998). Arguably, in many situations we may not even know what our attitudes are until we are actually asked or motivated to think about them. Our answers may even depend on the way questions are asked, or effected by the presence of an interviewer, and if the topic is actually a sensitive or embarrassing one.
However, these are not the only factors which affect the relationship between attitude components and Triandis (1982) counted nearly 40 factors that may be detrimental to attitude-behavior consistency.
Therefore, when media or politicians cite research that attitudes towards perceived disability are improving, such statistics may not be a 'true' reflection of prevalent opinions and beliefs within the UK, because those stated attitudes may depend on a variety of complex variables. This is problematic, especially when trying to 'measure' bias and prejudice, as arguably very few people may want to be seen as 'holding' biased or prejudiced opinions or beliefs about race, religion, sexuality, gender or disability.
This may have been a case after the 2012 Paralympics in London, where attitudes towards disability were argued to have improved further - as the games undoubtedly not only showed the abilities that disabled people have, but also the character traits of courage, physical or mental strength and perseverance that British people are perceived to appreciate and hold dear. However, during this period there was very little indication that 'hate crime' towards disability had actually decreased, but remained pretty much at the same level as before.
Therefore, when researchers, politicians or the media next argue that 'attitudes' are improving towards race, religion, sexuality, gender or disability, maybe these 'facts' should be scrutinized much more closely, and in some cases, taken 'with a pinch of salt'.
It may also be worth remembering that the relationship between 'attitudes' and 'behavior' is not only a contested one, but that surveys and opinion polls concerning public attitudes are often generated within a multi-billion dollar 'marketing' industry, and an industry that just doesn't find out public opinion, but in some cases, may arguably also want to tell people, what they want to hear.
Paul Dodenhoff is a PhD student based at the Law School, Lancaster University, investigating the motivation behind 'disability hate crime' within the UK. This essay/article is written in a personal capacity. However, anybody wishing to support the research in any way or have an input into the research, may contact the author via the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eagly, A. H. & Chaikan, S. (1998). Cited in Hoggs, M. A. & Vaughan, G. M. (2002). Social Psychology, 3rd ed. Essex, U.K.: Pearson.
Home Office UK
La piere, R T. (1934). Attitude vs. Action. Social forces. 13, 230-237
Jacobs, J.B., & Potter, K. (1998:11). Hate crimes: Criminal law & identity politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Triandis, H. C. (1982). A model of choice in marketing. In Sheth, J. (Ed.), Research in Marketing, Vol. 6 (Suppl. 1, pp.145-162). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
M.J. Rosenberg and C. I. Hovland, "Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Components of Attitudes." In M. J. Rosenberg, C. I. Hovland (eds.), Attitude Organization and Change: An Analysis of Consistency Among Attitude Components. New Haven: Yale University Press (1960).