Intergroup relations, specifically within the United States, are often negative and considered in need of social and often political reform. Past approaches to reform strategies have focused on combating existing fear and threats to others’ way of life, drawing on social science research suggesting ways in which perceived threats bring about prejudice. Much of this research, however, has been done in isolation of one another and does not provide a complete relationship between threat and prejudice. Thus, the integrated threat theory (ITT) attempts to consolidate this past research on threat and intergroup relations, providing a more broadly applicable theory of prejudice (Stephan & Stephan, 2000). At its core, ITT suggests that in order to better understand and reduce prejudice, we must better understand how different types of fear and threats to people’s way of life underlie the production of these prejudice beliefs.
Theoretical tests of the integrated threat theory have focused primarily on the relationship between the four types of threat and prejudice production. For instance, past research has found all four types of threat (realistic threat, symbolic threat, intergroup anxiety, and negative stereotyping) predicted prejudice toward immigrant groups (Stephan, Ybarra, and Bachman, 1999; Stephan et al., 2005). In fact, Stephan, Ybarra, and Bachman found that the four types of threat accounted for 72% of the variance in attitudes toward Mexican immigrants among college students in Florida, Hawaii, and New Mexico (1999). Likewise, research on White Americans’ attitudes toward African Americans found that realistic threat, symbolic threat, and intergroup anxiety predicted both implicit and explicit prejudices. This study considered negative stereotyping as an antecedent to these relationships, and found negative stereotyping to increase all three levels of threat and consequent prejudice toward African Americans (Aberson & Gaffney, 2008).
However, additional evidence extending ITT to various sociodemographic groups and cultural contexts shows more mixed findings. In research on women’s attitudes towards men, symbolic threat and intergroup anxiety were significant predictors of prejudice while realistic threat and negative stereotyping did not predict women’s attitudes toward men (Stephan et al., 2000). The authors suggest that this result may be due to females’ consistent subordinate position in America’s patriarchical society and that stereotypes of males may be seen as natural byproducts of this system. Similarly, research on prejudice towards Muslims in the Netherlands found that symbolic threats and negative stereotyping predicted prejudice among Dutch adolescents but not realistic threats (González et al., 2008).
Despite these mixed findings on the relationship between threat and prejudice, this research does provide support for the role of various antecedents within ITT, such as ingroup identification, contact, and intergroup conflict. Both Stephan et al. (2000) and González et al. (2008) found that negative contact positively affected the relationship between symbolic threat and prejudice and the relationship between negative stereotyping and prejudice respectively. Additionally, González et al. found that when more ingroup identification was expressed by Dutch adolescents they were more likely to report symbolic threat and ultimately increased levels of prejudice toward Muslims (2008). This research on antecedents to the relationship between threat and prejudice is influential by not only providing evidence of integrated threat theory, but also by refining theoretical elements of ITT such as the theory’s propositions and scope conditions.