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The Role of Affects in Bias, Prejudice, and Violence

Early negative feelings can supply the fuel for later bias and violence.

Key points

  • Our earliest feelings (affects), such as fear and shame, can provide the fuel for bias, prejudice, and violence, in individuals and groups.
  • Poor social conditions often contribute to bias, prejudice, and violence in groups.
  • Cults/antisocial groups often provide members with positive feelings---belonging, shared purposes, validation, understanding.
  • Leaders use feelings to accomplish their goals. Consider Hitler's tirades. Also consider the speeches of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Source: metamorworks/Adobe Stock


In individuals, fear and other negative affects seem central to understanding bias and prejudice. Fear/terror is very toxic, designed for emergency motivation. Silvan Tomkins differentiates fear from distress, the latter being evoked for a longer period of time and felt as burdensome (1992). Distress and fear and all the other negative affects—anger, shame, disgust, dissmell, alone or in combination—have the capacity to trigger increasing rage and violence toward any number of targets, depending on the individuals or the group.

The psychodynamics involved have been described in a variety of ways, often depending on the psychological school of thought and the specific affect involved. For example, one often hears the following terms associated with perpetrators of violence due to bias and prejudice:

  • fragile sense of self-esteem
  • feelings of inferiority
  • compensatory grandiosity; lack of self-cohesion (impaired internal order leading to fear and distress)

They are described as wounded; shamed and humiliated; expressing various current or past traumas; experiencing individual or societal deprivation; and being overwhelmed by the need for revenge (and a rageful effort to gain empathy: “See, this is how it feels!”).

I recently heard another example of the fear and anger underlying bias and prejudice. A man was asked in the midst of the pandemic why he wouldn’t take the vaccine: “You are not going to shove that down my throat,” he roared. Who is the “you”? What caused these feelings and responses I have no idea—an early parental transference, a projection of some sort, previous experience, something he had read or heard (e.g., misinformation)? But the fear and rage were palpable.

Instead of seeing care, the desire to help protect him from peril, he saw the suggestion of a vaccine as an invasion of his hyperdefended personal space and sense of self and felt that any social or individual action that entered that territory posed a threat. (One can only imagine how scary his childhood may have been.)


David Terman integrated affects (especially fear, shame, and anger) with the fundamentalist mindset and violence (2010). Terman suggests that most fundamentalist groups have a very specific set of dynamics that he calls the paranoid gestalt. “It is a general perceptual affective-cognitive organization in individuals and an analogous, shared cognitive structure in groups. The pattern is quite stereotypic, and this invariant regularity is most evident in groups” (2010, p. 47).

There are varying degrees of paranoia in the individuals, and the group has a conviction that there is a malevolent conspiracy against it. “Along with the more recent work on paranoia,” Terman noted, “I have placed much less emphasis on projection and have given much greater attention to the issues of shame and humiliation” (p. 51). For example, recall the historian Volker Ullrich highlighting the importance of Hitler’s emphasizing Germany’s shame and humiliation post-Versailles as he built up the Nazi party in the 1930s (2016).

In addition, there is often the notion that the “evil other” must be exterminated (what Tomkins terms a decontamination script, powered by disgust, 1992), with a utopia of some sort being the result (2010; Terman, personal communication, 2021). These ideas may be taught from birth, or they may arise due to narcissistic injuries, humiliation, poor socioeconomic conditions, war, need for revenge, fear, hate, and more.

Another notable topic in the context of affects is the violence associated with bias and prejudice. Not only can affect be contagious, various excessive negative affects can lead to anger, rage, and violent behaviors. Sometimes the violence occurs within a relatively brief period of time—as members of one group are killed, provoking trauma and pain, the other group retaliates, and the cycle continues for a few months to years. This type of contagion can be termed within-generation: intragenerational violence. It is seen frequently in urban gang wars.

Another variation takes place over longer periods of time and several generations—the rate and need for revenge continues for decades or even centuries and is called between-generations, or intergenerational, violence”— often involving the intermingling of politics and religion. Intergenerational violence also occurs in families beset by physical punishment. Those who are subjected to physical punishment are much more likely to use it against others, and it gets passed on from generation to generation (Holden, 2020).

While negative affects play a role in bias, prejudice, and violence, so do positive affects. Groups such as the KKK, ISIS, and Nazis appear to be motivated by a complex mixture of positive and negative affects. The groups give vent to the negative affects and offer substitutions for missing positive ones. Cults/antisocial groups provide validation, attention, and positive affects of interest/excitement and enjoyment/joy to people who are often missing them. For instance, consider the longing for closeness, belonging, attachment, organization; the decrease in tension (enjoyment) when one is appreciated, understood, validated; the sense of order when there is a shared purpose and goals.

These positive aspects of groups become important in the changes some people make as they leave such groups. The positive affects associated with groups are often instrumental in enticing people to join a violent cult—and also to leave it for a different group.

Affects and Leaders

Leaders can be very influential with respect to bias, prejudice, and violence. The have the capacity to enhance both positive and negative affects of individuals and groups. The oft-debated question—do the times make the leader or does the leader make the times—seems dependent on specific situations and a host of variables. Ullrich gives an example involving Adolf Hitler: “Without Hitler, the rise of National Socialism would have been unthinkable.…Nonetheless, the special conditions of the immediate post-war years were also crucial: without the explosive mixture of economic misery, social instability, and collective trauma, the popular agitator Hitler would never have been able to work his way out of anonymity to become a famous politician” (2016, p. 92).

However, regardless of the leader/circumstances question, there is no doubt of the power of some leaders to use positive and negative affects to motivate their followers and enhance their causes. Hitler could elicit excitement and joy, and he was a master at eliciting fear, disgust, and rage in his audiences.

Consider also those who have used various means to elicit interest and enjoyment and inspire a sense of togetherness, which undermine bias and prejudice.

Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863): “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865): “…With malice toward none; with charity for all;…let us strive on to finish the work we are in;…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

In his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1933), Roosevelt used a nice twist to decrease fear and enhance interest during the Depression with his phrase “…the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror…” With these words, Roosevelt introduced curiosity and cognition into the issue of fear.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I Have a Dream” Speech (August 28. 1963): “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Winston Churchill

Churchill used his rhetoric and humor to dispel fear and enhance interest and enjoyment.

“…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” (June 4, 1940)

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (August 20, 1940)

In response to the claim that England would “…have her neck wrung like a chicken…”, Churchill responded: “…Some chicken!—Some neck!” (December 30, 1941)


Holden GW (2020). Why do parents hit their children? From cultural to unconscious determinants. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 73:10-29.

Terman DM (2010). Theories of group psychology, paranoia, and rage. In The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History (CB Strozier et al, eds., pp. 16-28). New York: Oxford University Press.

Tomkins SS (1992). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume IV): Cognition: Duplication and Transformation of Information. New York: Springer.

Ullrich V (2016). Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Translated from the German by Jefferson Chase.

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