Careful Words: Do Differing Levels of Cultural Sensitivity/political Correctness in Language Influence Attitudes toward Outgroups, Minorities, and the Stigmatized?

Open Access
Kerns, Kristin Marie
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Eric Silver, Thesis Supervisor
  • Jeffery Todd Ulmer, Honors Advisor
  • cultural sensitivity
  • political correctness
  • language
  • words
  • attitudes
  • tolerance
  • outgroups
  • minorities
  • stigmatized
Social norms and consequences for using (or failing to use) culturally sensitive or politically correct language are ambiguous. Thus, we know little about whether the language used to refer to outgroups, minorities, and the stigmatized influences peoples’ attitudes toward members of these groups. To address this question, this study examines short-term exposure to three levels of cultural sensitivity or political correctness (CS/PC) in written language, and also examines longer-term effects. Participants were randomly assigned to read a written narrative using different terminology (insensitive/incorrect, neutral/correct, or ultra-sensitive/ultra-correct) to refer to five different outgroups (Blacks/African Americans, the physically disabled, the mentally/intellectually disabled, the obese, and homosexuals). A control condition also was included in which no references to outgroups were made. Participants were also asked about their longer-term exposure to CS/PC in language. Immediately after reading the narrative, participants completed a range of survey items. Results indicate that longer-term exposure to CS/PC in language is associated with more tolerance toward outgroups, while short-term exposure has little to no effect. Theoretical background and discussion highlights issues of impression management, symbolic interactionism, psychological reactance, and psychological priming. Implications for understanding short-term versus long-term effects of exposure to CS/PC in language on attitudes toward outgroups, minorities, and the stigmatized are discussed, along with implications for future research.