Sunday, 3 April 2011

Classic study: LaPiere (1934) on discrimination

Will a person's attitude towards other races always be matched by their actions?

Richard LaPiere wanted to find out about prejudice towards towards the ethnic Chinese community in America in the 1930s, at a time of strong prejudice following large-scale immigration. Previous to the research, he and a Chinese student had entered a hotel in a small Californian town with some concern about whether they would be accommodated, but obtained rooms with ease. Some months later he telephoned the hotel to ask if they would accommodate ‘an important Chinese gentleman’ and were told a definite ‘No'. This event stimulated the study.


Over the next two years LaPiere took several trips with the student and his wife, both of whom were ‘charming and personable’ and were also of Chinese origin. Both spoke unaccented American English.

On a 10,000 mile trip, they were received at 66 hotels and ‘tourist homes’ and rejected only once; they were served in 184 restaurants and cafes, receiving good service in 72 of them.

The Chinese-Americans made the reservations or orders, but LaPiere had not told them the research aims, and instead made excuses to be absent at the vital moment!

Overall, little discrimination was found. However, 6 months later a questionnaire was sent out to every one of the establishments visited, asking “Will you accept members of the Chinese race as guests in your establishment?”. Out of 251, 128 replied.  92% said ‘no’ to the question (LaPiere, 1934).


It appeared that what people say they will do is often very different from how they actually behave! LaPiere concluded that people responded more to appearance and self-confidence rather than race. It may seem strange that people claimed to be racist when they actually were not. Nowadays, we might be more concerned about the opposite pattern - people who claim not to be prejudiced, when their behaviour suggests otherwise. Either way, though, the key theoretical issue is that attitudes do not always match actions.

A broader issue shown by this study is that prejudice depends strongly on the social norms of the society. While immigration from Asia was an issue that caused concern among the majority in 1930s California, nowadays the targets of prejudice have changed. Fiske et al. (2000) surveyed attitudes among University of Massachusetts undergraduates in the early 2000s, asking them about over 20 groups; they noted that the lowest level of warmth was expressed towards Arabs, Hispanics, the rich, feminists, poor Whites, poor Blacks, and (lowest of all) welfare recipients.


The study is limited in several ways. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that there is no guarantee that the members of staff who replied to questionnaires (possibly management) were the same as the ones who served the guests. There was also no investigation into why people made the choices that they did when answering the questionnaire.


Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P. and Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878-902.

LaPiere, R.T. (1934). Attitudes v’s actions. Social Forces, 13, 230-7.


  1. excellent look at the la pierre study, helped with my prejudice essay for higher psychology, thank you.

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