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The Role of Internal Motivation in the Struggle for Unprejudiced Behavior

Social Processes Lab


February 2005 - October 2008


German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft)


This project put forward a self-regulation approach to unprejudiced behavior. More precisely, the focus was on how relevant environmental stimuli impact on the striving towards the goal to be unprejudiced. The internal motivation to be unprejudiced is taken into account as a presumably important factor.

The first part of the research project applied goal system theory to the regulation of prejudice. It analyzed how motivational processes contribute to the control of prejudice as an automatic self-regulation process. Results of two studies supported the prediction that internal motivation, when measured and when manipulated via subliminal priming, increases commitment and endorsement to the goal of behaving unprejudiced.

The second part of the project aimed at understanding the process behind the often shown positive effect of high internal motivation to be unprejudiced. Assuming that a central difference resulting from the internal motivation to be unprejudiced is the response to failure in being unprejudiced, we suggested (based on self-completion theory) that internally motivated individuals experience failure in being unprejudiced as a self-definitional shortcoming. In a series of studies it was shown that higher levels of internal motivation lead to more discomfort when failing to be unprejudiced, but not when failing in other domains. Moreover increasing internal motivation led to more effort to avoid stereotyping (less errors on a reaction time task) after failure in being unprejudiced (compared to a non-failure condition), and finally it was demonstrated that failure in being unprejudiced actually led to less prejudice in a subsequent task, for highly but not for lowly internally motivated individuals.
The third part of the project studied the impact of internal motivation in a special case of prejudiced behavior, namely benevolent discrimination. It was demonstrated that high internally motivated individuals are more prone to show benevolent discrimination because of their intention to act positively toward stigmatized persons. At the same time, higher internal motivation also elicits critical reappraisal of this behavior if information about the negative consequences of this behavior is provided subtly. In turn, the probability of showing benevolent discrimination again decreases. Taken together, the findings suggest that environmental stimuli, like failure, might play a key role for high internally motivated individuals in regulating prejudice successfully.


  • Fehr, J., Sassenberg, K., & Jonas, K. J. (2012). Willful stereotype control: The impact of internal motivation to respond without prejudice on the regulation of activated stereotypes. Zeitschrift für Psychologie – Journal of Psychology, 220(3), 180-186.
  • Fehr, J., & Sassenberg, K. (2010). Willing and able: How internal motivation and failure help to overcome prejudice. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 13(2), 167-181.
  • Fehr, J., & Sassenberg, K. (2009). Intended and unintended consequences of internal motivation to behave nonprejudiced - The case of benevolent discrimination. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (6), 1093-1108.