When people face a crisis, they often revert to an unfortunate human tendency: to protect their own while finding a scapegoat to blame the problem on.

These propensities emerged full blown in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Arab Americans who had previously blended into the crowd suddenly became targets of suspicion, prey to verbal bullying, e-mail harassment, store lootings and even murder. Arab students, fearing for their safety, fled the United States and returned home.

"We're in a mode where we feel like we have to protect ourselves, where we feel that everyone who is clearly not 'us' needs to be scrutinized," says Ervin Staub, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an expert on helping, altruism and the origins and prevention of ethnopolitical conflict. "When people are victimized as individuals or as a group, it creates a diminished sense of self, a view that the world is a more dangerous place."

Most Americans would never overtly act on the feelings of mistrust that may have developed since the attacks. But a small proportion of Americans have participated in incidents ranging from name-hurling to full-blown hate crimes, like the much-publicized murder of a Sikh gas-station owner by an Arizona man or another person's attempt to run over a Pakistani woman in a Huntington, N.Y., parking lot. It's hard to say how many of these incidents have occurred nationwide since Sept. 11, but as of Sept. 30, the FBI was investigating about 90 alleged hate crimes and hundreds of other incidents that have been reported.

Social and clinical psychologists who study these phenomena note important distinctions between people who commit hate crimes and those who may experience a newfound suspicion of Arab Americans and act on it in lesser ways. But it's also important, Staub and others believe, to view bias reactions on a continuum and in a cultural and political context. It's possible, they say, that a deeper education about Arab-American citizens may help prevent hate crimes against them.

Understanding perpetrators

University of California, Los Angeles psychologist Edward Dunbar, PhD, is examining from a clinical and forensic perspective what drives hate-crime perpetrators. With a team of graduate students, he's spent the last year at the Los Angeles Police Department profiling about 550 perpetrators, examining such factors as motivation, childhood histories and levels of pathology.

Those who commit hate crimes are not mentally ill in the traditional sense--they're not diagnosably schizophrenic or manic depressive, Dunbar is finding. What they do share, however, is a high level of aggression and antisocial behavior.

"These people are not psychotic, but they're consistently very troubled, very disturbed, very problematic members of our community who pose a huge risk for future violence," Dunbar notes. Childhood histories of these offenders show high levels of parental or caretaker abuse and use of violence to solve family problems, he adds.

People who commit bias crimes are also more likely to deliberate on and plan their attacks than those who commit more spontaneous crimes, Dunbar adds.

Gay-bashers, for instance, commute long distances to pursue their victims in spots they're likely to find them, suggesting a strong premeditative component to these crimes. In addition, those who commit hate crimes show a history of such actions, beginning with smaller incidents and moving up to more serious ones, Dunbar notes.

Unfortunately, the current social climate may give such individuals a chance to act out their feelings in ways that are more socially acceptable than usual, comments Staub.

"A crisis such as this may give them permission to have and express these feelings," he says. "People who have had painful experiences and no opportunities to heal tend to be more hostile in general, and they more easily channel their hostility toward groups the society is also against."

Why we act as we do

Research by University of Colorado at Boulder psychologists Bernadette Park, PhD, and Charles Judd, PhD, helps explain why some people came to so rapidly mistrust Arab Americans after the Sept. 11 incidents--aside from the obvious fact that they share a similar ethnic background with the terrorists. Longstanding research by the team and by the other social psychologists shows that people tend to see groups they're not a part of as more homogeneous than their own group, a phenomenon known as the "outgroup homogeneity effect."

"When you meet a person who's a member of an outgroup, you're less likely to individuate them, to pay attention to individual characteristics, than when you meet members of your ingroup," Judd explains. That's because stereotypes concerning outgroup members are stronger than those of ingroup members; people are therefore more willing to ignore individuating information about members of outgroups, lumping them all into a single disliked category, he says.

The less you know about a group, the stronger this effect will be--which is certainly the case in the current crisis, adds Clark McCauley, PhD, professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. Americans were ignorant about their Arab-American neighbors before the Sept. 11 crisis, he says, in part because of their lack of historical knowledge and in part because Arab-American communities are concentrated in only a few spots in the United States.

And when people don't know much about a group, they're likely to ascribe to them the notion of a cultural "essence," a sort of innate temperament they erroneously believe defines the entire culture. In the case of Arabs, that essence may be seen as militant and extremist: "The thinking is, you can take away a tiger's stripes, but it's still a tiger," McCauley says. That view is compounded by the fact that many Americans' only other concepts of Arabs come from their incorrect view of them as hostage-takers in the 1980 Iranian hostage debacle--many Iranians are in fact not Arabs, McCauley notes--and as anti-Israeli terrorists. (McCauley also takes issue with the term 'hate crimes,' noting that little is known about the emotion of hatred. Instead, he thinks of them as crimes fueled by anger, and probably fear and ignorance as well.)

Social psychologist Russell Fazio, PhD, of Ohio State University, has been examining a related phenomenon he calls "automatically activated attitudes" toward those of different races. He was the first to develop a measure estimating whites' positive or negative associations to and evaluations of blacks, without having to directly ask them for this information. The technique tests the extent to which briefly flashed pictures of black or white faces influence the speed at which participants identify the meaning of a positive or negative adjective. The research shows that many whites automatically react more negatively to blacks than to whites, even though they claim they don't consciously hold such views.

Because the current crisis has led many Americans to develop negative associations about Arabs, the attitudes automatically activated on meeting an Arab American are likely to be negative and to influence the tone of the interaction, Fazio suggests.

One effect of these phenomena may be avoidance. In an unpublished study under review, Fazio and Tamara Towles-Schwen of Indiana University asked white subjects to respond to different posed social scenarios involving blacks. Whites showed no negative reactions to interacting with blacks in nonintimate or highly scripted situations, such as relating to a waiter in a restaurant. But in intimate, nonscripted conditions like sharing a dorm room with or dating a black person, "we found powerful effects," Fazio says. "The more negative people's automatically activated attitudes, the more reluctant they were to even initiate behavior with the person."

This sort of brush-off, Fazio surmises, is what many Arab Americans will experience from their fellow Americans as a result of the Sept. 11 crisis.

Understanding hate crimes

In research suggesting why some people may turn their ethnic discomfort into drastic action, psychologist Jack Glaser, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, Yale University political scientist Donald Green, PhD, and journalist Jay Dixit took the novel approach of joining in a white racist Internet chat room to discern attitudes there.

In a study in press in the Journal of Social Issues, the team "chatted" with white racists by describing fabricated threats to their white hegemony, ranging from immediate local threats to more abstract national ones. Included in the chats were scenarios of blacks competing with whites for jobs, moving into the neighborhood or marrying white women. (The team went to great lengths to protect respondents' confidentiality, Glaser notes.)

The closer blacks came to "invading" whites' cultural turf, the more violent the responses, the team found. Job competition didn't pose an enormous threat, for instance, but the possibility of a white-black marriage created major sparks.

"The more extreme responses seemed to be about a threat to their cultural integrity," Glaser notes.

In related research, Green, Glaser and political scientist Andrew Rich, PhD, have debunked a longstanding sacred cow in the hate crimes literature: that economic factors predict hate crime levels. In a number of studies in racial 'hot spots' including Los Angeles and the South, and in major statistical re-analyses of a famous 1940 study by Yale psychologists Carl Hovland and Robert Sears showing a relationship between cotton prices and lynchings, the team has found this relationship simply doesn't hold up. Other research by Green also shows that sociocultural factors likely do explain such rises.

Turning bias around

Psychologists have thought long and hard about how to ameliorate the kinds of prejudice and bias crimes that have flared up since Sept. 11, with the awareness that such reactions have long historical antecedents.

One way is to apply our own American values--inclusion and the right to free speech, for example--to our understanding of Arab Americans, as well as to Arabs and Muslims outside our borders, says Staub. The Bush administration took an admirable step toward this by telling citizens it was un-American to act in a biased manner toward people of other races, religions or ethnicities. Likewise, the media and individual citizens can promote the idea that we're a nation of immigrants ourselves, who came from highly divergent backgrounds.

Likewise, real contact with Arab Americans can facilitate understanding, as can learning about their culture and from our own history, notes Thomas Pettigrew, PhD, a University of California, Santa Cruz research psychologist and visiting fellow at Stanford University, who, with Linda Tropp, PhD, of Boston College, just completed a major meta-analysis of "the contact hypothesis" (see All you need is contact). One thing many Americans don't know, for example, is that German Americans were scapegoated during World War I, and were the victims of beatings, house burnings and other forms of violence.

"In 1917, a lot of German Americans were so frightened that they changed their names," Pettigrew says. "There are a lot of 'Smiths' walking around today who used to be 'Schmidts.'" If we view the present crisis the right way, it can be an important opportunity to broaden our horizons as Americans and as world citizens, suggests Staub.

"Teachers like to talk about the 'teachable moment,'" he says. "We can look at the current situation as a teachable moment, to enlarge our sense of community and our sense of relationship to others." Such stretching, he adds, can both help us heal from the recent tragedy and lead to the kinds of actions that will prevent the ultimate hate crime--terrorism.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.