European Journal of Social Psychology, 2001, 31, 1-17

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European Journal of Social Psychology, 2001, 31, 1-17

Running head: Major Events and Stereotyping


Daniel Bar-Tal and Daniela Labin

School of Education School of Education

Tel-Aviv University Tel-Aviv University
The authors thank Charles Stangor for his comments on the earlier draft of this manuscript. Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Daniel Bar-Tal, School of Education, Tel-Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel; email:


This study examines the effect of a major event (terrorist attacks) on the stereotypic perceptions, attitudes and affects of 119 Israeli adolescents (56 males and 63 females of 5th and 8th grades) toward three target groups: (a) Palestinians, who still have conflictive relations with the Israelis (Palestinian extremists carried out the attacks), (b) Jordanians, who have peaceful relations with the Israelis and (c) Arabs, in general, who are considered a subcategory including Arabs of all nations. The questionnaires were administered to the same adolescents three times: during a relatively peaceful spell in Israeli-Palestinian relations; one day following two terrorist attacks, and three months thereafter. In the last administration adolescents' need for closure was also measured. Adolescents' perceptions, attitudes and affect toward the three target group were differentiated – relating to Palestinians most negatively and to Jordanians most positively. Also, following the terrorist attacks, stereotypic perceptions and attitudes changed in a negative direction, in relation to all the three groups; again with expressed differentiation among the three groups. In the third measurement, some measures remained negative, but some changed to be more positive. Only few effects of age were detected and several significant correlation with need for closure were found. These results indicate that stereotypes and attitudes toward outgroups are context-dependent, influenced by events; thus they serve as "a seismograph" to the quality of intergroup relations at any given time.

The Effect of a Major Event on Stereotyping: Terrorist Attacks in Israel and

Israeli Adolescents' Perceptions of Palestinians, Jordanians and Arabs
One of the key issues in the study of stereotyping is the delineation of conditions and situations which change the contents of held stereotypes (e.g., Allport, 1954; Bar-Tal, 1997; Ellemers & van Knippenberg; 1997; Pettigrew, 1998). This involves, on the one hand, the types of active interventions which facilitate change in stereotypic contents, and, on the other hand, real world events, experiences or information which influence stereotypic perceptions. The present study focuses on the second line of research: It examines the effect of a major event (i.e., terrorist attack) on the stereotypes toward groups relevant to this event. This particular direction has been largely disregarded in social psychology.

Years ago, Sherif and his colleagues, in a series of experiments (Sherif, 1966; Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961) were the first to demonstrate experimentally that events, which take place in the context of intergroup relations, affect the mutual stereotypic perceptions of groups. Also, a number of nonexperimental studies showed that nations changed their stereotypes as a result of major events, which took place in the context of the intergroup relations (e.g., Benyamini, 1981; Buchanan, 1951; Dudycha, 1942; Seago, 1947; Sinha & Upadhyaya, 1960). This line of research is supported by the realistic conflict theory, which suggests that stereotypes reflect real conflicts over power or scarce resources such as territory, natural resources, or trade. In a situation of conflict, the parties involved develop hostility, as well as negative stereotyping and prejudice (Bar-Tal, 1990; Bobo, 1988; LeVine & Campbell, 1972).

In general, this theory suggests that stereotypic contents are influenced by the nature of relations between groups (Bar-Tal, 1997), which is determined by accumulated events that can have either negative or positive meaning for the relations. But, as Sherif, et al. (1961) demonstrated that although stereotypes are shaped by the nature of long-term intergroup relations, they also are affected, sometimes even briefly, by short term major events that occur in the context of the relations between the groups. Stereotypes, therefore, serve as a "seismograph" of intergroup relations at any given time, since they change in response to information derived from major events pertaining to intergroup relations.

This assumption is not surprising in view of the fact that social cognitive literature showed that confirming or disconfirming information acquired about a target group leads to an adjustment in the stereotypic beliefs (see for example, Hewstone, Johnston, & Aird, 1992; Mackie, Allison, Worth, & Asuncion, 1992; Rothbart, 1981). However, not all information influences the content of stereotypes. It can be assumed that major information related to the target group, which cannot be disregarded, will either strengthen or weaken the existing stereotypes, depending on whether the information confirms or disconfirms them. The present study intends to focus on major information coming from real life events and examines how this information influences stereotypic perception.

The effect of major information on stereotypic perception depends on different factors. One factor affecting change of stereotypes is related to the type of situation from which the person infers the relevant information about the other group. In real life situations, individuals incur different situations involving various groups from which relevant information to held stereotypes can be inferred. The focus of the present study concerns major events occurring in an intergroup context. Major events are defined as extraordinary events, relevant to group members' lives, which are widely publicized through group's channels of communication and provide information that cannot be disregarded. Examples of major events are military, violent engagements, terrorist attacks, territorial conquest, signing peace agreements, peaceful statement of an enemy's leader, atrocities performed, etc. Major events differ with regard to their characteristics and therefore they have differential influence on the stereotypes held by group members. The following characteristics of major events in intergroup context are of importance for studying their effects: (a) duration of the event – the longer the major event, the more influence it may have on the stereotypes; (b) level of trauma – traumatic events, causing experiences of stress (Koopman, 1997) have more influence on the stereotypes then nontraumatic events; (c) evaluative nature of the event – events providing negative meaning have more influence on the stereotypes than events providing positive meaning (Ito, Larsen, Smith & Cacioppo, 1998); (d) ambiguity of the event – the more ambiguous the event, the less influence it has on the stereotypes; (e) correspondence with the held stereotype – events whose meaning corresponds to the stereotypes strengthen the confidence in their contents, while events whose meaning does not correspond to the stereotypes weaken the confidence in the their contents.

It can be assumed, for example, that an unambiguously positive, powerful event which contradicts a person's negative stereotypes may change them somewhat for the better, at least for a short period of time, if additional events will not come to support this change. An unambiguously negative, powerful event which is in line with negative, held stereotypes will change the stereotypes in a further negative direction, at least for a short period of time, if the event takes place on the background of improving intergroup relations. Such predicted temporary effect is based on the evidence that short term events have only limited influence on attitudes and affect, if they contradict strong dispositions or shift from the dominant trend of opinions and nature of intergroup relations (e.g., Bellisfield, 1972; Dillehay, 1964; Raviv, Sade, Raviv, Silberstein, & Diver, 1999; Thistlethwaite, 1974). These findings indicate that major events, especially traumatic ones as terrorist attacks, draw special attention and relevance. Terrorist attacks are very short, traumatic events, of negative nature, unambiguous and often in line with the held stereotypes of the terrorist group. The events provide powerful information, which automatically unfreeze held beliefs and attitudes, without its careful consideration and assessment. But, with time, as the stress and trauma wear off and the vividness of the major event declines, there is again broadening of the attention span to include different types of information and shifting back to pre-event beliefs and attitudes.

Another factor in the information processing of major events is the personal variables of the information processor, which determine how the person processes new information. Among personal variables, such as dogmatism, self differentiation and self-monitoring, of special interest for the present study are the epistemic motivations proposed by Kruglanski and Webster (1996), which affect the initiation, continuation and cessation of information processing. They have important influence on the inferences made on the basis of information coming from the major events. These motivations are reflected in the extent to which individuals close on a belief, by trying to have knowledge, or avoid closure, in order to prevent a mistake. Features of specific or nonspecific closure must also be distinguished, since individuals may seek or avoid closure just on a specific belief or in general, on any one, that comes to mind. Much research has focused on the need for nonspecific closure (called need for closure), which may either occur as a stable personality disposition, or be aroused situationally, and facilitates reaching a conclusion. It indicates a desire to have firm knowledge, i.e., knowledge that prevents a feeling of uncertainty. Individuals with high need for closure tend to adhere to their held stereotypes(Crawford & Skowronski, 1998; Kruglanski & Freund, 1983; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994). In general, they tend to hold more unidimensional stereotypes to avoid ambiguity and in times of major traumatic events, which provide information in line with the held stereotypes, they are expected to strengthen their extremism. The latter tendency reflects the increased need of closure in a situation of stress, in which individuals are highly motivated to have unequivocal knowledge (Bar-Tal, Y., Raviv, & Spitzer, 1999).

The present investigation of the effect of a major event on stereotypic perceptions, attitudes and affect took place in Israel, which unfortunately serves as a natural laboratory to the study of intergroup conflict. The study concerned the effect of terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinian extremists, on Israelis' stereotypes, social distance, feelings and attributed behavioral intentions toward Palestinians, Jordanians and Arabs. The historical background to the study is that of the peace process which began with the Oslo Agreement signed between the Israelis and the Palestinians on September 13, 1993, in Washington, and followed by the peace agreement Israel signed with Jordan on October 26, 1994. The peace process came to terminate the hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which developed about the contested territory known over the last centuries as Palestine, which two national movements, the Jewish (Zionism) and the Palestinian, claimed as their homeland. For many years the Israeli-Arab conflict seemed irreconcilable and involved violent acts. But, since the late seventies, with the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, a peace process slowly got underway which has been the changing relations between Israeli and Arabs in the Middle East (Bar-Tal, 1998). Presently, this peace process involves ongoing, direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, which are opposed by various Israeli and Palestinian groups who occasionally resort to violence.

In addition it should be noted that during the decades of violent conflict Israelis developed a very negative stereotype of "the Arabs" (Bar-Tal, 1996; Benyamini, 1981; Bizman & Amir, 1982; Hofman, 1972; Rouhana, 1987; Shamir & Sullivan, 1985), a label used as a general category, that failed to differentiate various national Arab groups. Only with the beginning of the peace process in the seventies such categorical and stereotypical differentiation began. For example, a study by Benyamini (1981) showed that in 1979, following the peace treaty with Egypt, "an Egyptian person" was perceived considerably more positively than "an Arab person" or "a Syrian person" or "an Arab person residing in the occupied territories" (i.e., a Palestinian). The last two persons were perceived the most negatively. Recently, Bar-Tal and Teichman (in preparation) found that Israeli children as young as 10 years old now differentiate among the groups. Between age 10 and 23 Palestinians, Syrians and Arabs are stereotyped more negatively than Jordanians and Egyptians. Nevertheless, the Arab category has remained in use in reference to Arabs in general.

In the present study, to investigate the effect of Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli stereotypes and attitudes toward Palestinians, Jordanians and Arabs, the same questionnaires were administered three times to the same respondents. The first assessment took place on February 20, 1996, about three months after the murder of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, by an Israeli extremist, a point in time when the peace process with the Palestinians seemed to be progressing well, with the last terrorist attack having occurred in August 21, 1995, in Jerusalem. This was a relatively peaceful period, which allowed to assess the stereotypic perceptions and attitudes as the baseline, in the general context of the peace process. The second assessment took place on February 26, 1996, a day after two terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinian members of the Hamas movement, an Islamic extremist organization, which opposes the terms of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first of these attacks, which was carried out in Jerusalem, claimed 23 civilian lives and 55 wounded. The second, which took place forty minutes later, in a southern town, Ashkelon, caused one death and 34 wounded. Both attacks were widely reported in Israel by all the channels of mass communication and the population responded with great emotional involvement, expressing a sense of vulnerability in the face of unpredictable attacks which could overtake anyone everywhere. This major negative event was repetitive, unambiguous, of great intensity and emotional involvement. Its inferred information, for the vast majority of Israelis, was in line with their held negative stereotype concerning Palestinians. However, it occurred in the midst of a peace process which involved Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It was, therefore, assumed that the effect of the attacks would be temporal only. A third assessment took place on May 26, about 12 weeks after the occurrence of the last in another series of terrorist attacks which shook Israel between February 25 and March 4, 1996. With the last assessment, the adolescent respondents were also asked to fill out a questionnaire measuring need for closure, developed by Webster and Kruglanski (1994).

The three target groups referred to by the study differed with regard to their relations to the terrorist acts. Palestinians were directly related, since members of this national group performed the attack. Jordanians were not related to the attack and in contrast to the Palestinians, who are generally distrusted and disliked by Israelis, they are relatively perceived positively. The group "Arabs", as indicated, is the general category of all the Arab nations, which is still used in Israel, often in derogatory contexts.

Two age groups of adolescents participated in the study: 13-14 years old and 16-17 years old. The two age groups were selected in view of the evidence suggesting that in the early adolescent period, boys and girls tend to exaggerate differences between the ingroup and outgroups, tend to take more ethnocentric views, and tend to be more extreme and less complex in their judgments (Aboud, 1988). Indeed, a number of studies found that with age stereotypic perceptions and attitudes toward Arabs become more positive (Bar-Tal & Teichman, in preparation; Benyamini, 1981; Kaminsky & Bar-Tal, 1996).

The relations toward the three target groups were assessed with four measures: attributed stereotypic traits, reported social distance, experienced feelings, and attributed behavioral intentions. These four measures were selected in order to extend the assessment of the cognitive-affective basis for the relations towards the three target groups, in comparison to most of the research, which uses only one, or two, measures (mostly measures of stereotypes). They include cognitive measures of stereotypes, attitudes measured by social distance, reported affects which indicate feelings and emotions, and attributed intentions which indicate general expectations for peaceful relations with the group. These measures assess various cognitive-affective aspects of intergroup relations, which may react differently to the powerful information of terror attack. This assumption is based on the accumulated knowledge in social psychology which points out to the differential functioning of beliefs, attitudes, and emotions (e.g., Eagly & Chaiken, 1998; Ekman & Davidson, 1994).

Following hypotheses were tested in the study: (1) Israeli adolescents differentiate among the three target groups. They will perceive and evaluate Jordanians more positively than Palestinians and Arabs; (2) following the terrorist attacks, the perception and evaluation of Palestinians and "Arabs" will become more negative, but the evaluation of Jordanians will not change. With time, however, the perception and evaluation of Palestinians and Arabs will return to its baseline, as was assessed before the terrorist attacks; (3) younger adolescents will perceive and evaluate the three target groups more negatively than older adolescents; (4) need for closure will influence the perception and evaluation of the three groups. The higher the need for closure, the more negative will be the evaluation of the three target groups, especially of Palestinians, and especially following the terrorist attacks.


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