Feeling Like You Don’t Belong: Racial and Identity-based Insults and Slights Can Lower Self-Esteem and Damage Quality of Life
Columbia Business School study finds that harmful stereotypes and microaggressions can lead to feelings of inauthenticity, anger, sadness, and compromised physical health
NEW YORK – Over the past year, the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police has sparked a societal recognition of the inequitable treatment that Black Americans and marginalized individuals experience each day, and in particular, the need for an embrace of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. As Americans confront racial injustice and systemic inequality, corporations are working to end mistreatment – with a focus on rooting out bias and the situations that can make individuals feel unwelcome and lead to damaging cultures. New research from Columbia Business School Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics Michael Slepian finds definitive evidence of the impact of harmful stereotypes and microaggressions on mental and physical health. The comprehensive, four-part study examined how people of marginalized identities experience identity threats in their everyday life and at work.
The study proposes that identity threats – situations, such as harmful stereotypes or microaggressions, that bring to light a conflict between someone’s identity and their workplace or social group – are linked to exclusion and lack of belonging which lead to a sense of inauthenticity, sadness and anger.
While exclusion and lack of belonging are often misunderstood as direct opposites of one another, the researchers found that feeling excluded and feeling a lack of belonging are two separate experiences with distinct outcomes. For example, they found that people who felt like they didn’t belong following an identity threat often experienced a subsequent sense of inauthenticity – like they couldn’t be their true selves. On the other hand, those who reported a sense of exclusion after an identity threat were more likely to report a negative effect like sadness and/or anger.
“Frequent experiences of identity threat are associated with harms to well-being in general and also as a function of feelings of inauthenticity, anger, or sadness,” said Professor Slepian. “When identity threats make someone feel like they don’t belong, they were more likely to feel lonely. But when identity threats made our respondents angry or sad, they were more likely to have worse physical health.”
Published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the study “Identity Threats in Everyday Life: Distinguishing Belonging from Inclusion” is co-written by University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business Professor Drew Jacoby-Senghor. Central to the study is the Identity Threats Questionnaire, a set of survey questions along 30 categories of potential identity threat scenarios ranging in severity, and exploring diversity broadly, including across race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. Using the survey, the researchers conducted four studies reviewing more than 17,000 instances of identity threats experienced by over 1,500 participants.
The first three studies examined participants’ experiences with social identity threats, while the fourth and final study placed itself in the context of the workplace to find that not only did the prior results hold true – a lack of belonging is associated with inauthenticity, and a sense of exclusion, sadness and/or anger – but they also found that workplace identity threats lead to lower levels of commitment to the job.
Key Takeaways Include:
- HARMFUL STEREOTYPES AND MICROAGRESSIONS ARE LINKED TO COMPROMISED WELL-BEING INCLUDING LONELINESS, WORSE PHYSICAL HEALTH, AND LOWER LIFE SATISFACTION – Specifically, the sense of inauthenticity that results from feeling like someone doesn’t belong is associated with loneliness. And when exclusion sparks feelings of sadness and anger, lower physical health and lower life satisfaction can be expected.
- AT WORK, IDENTITY THREATS CAN LOWER COMMITMENT: An employee who feels excluded, along with associated feelings of anger and sadness, or like they don’t belong and can’t be their true self, after experiencing identity threats on the job, is likely to also feel less committed to their workplace or job.
- OUTCOMES TRANSCEND IDENTITY GROUPS – Across all types of identity threats, including harmful stereotypes, insults, slights and microaggressions, and across all identity groups – from race, gender, socioeconomic status, to sexual orientation, and others – holding a marginalized identity was associated with compromised physical and mental health and lower life satisfaction stemming from feeling excluded or like you don’t belong.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Management Division of Columbia Business School...Read more.