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Higher Education and Reducing Prejudice: Research on Cognitive Capabilities Underlying Tolerance
Victoria L. Guthrie, Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Personnel Leadership, Ohio University, Patricia M. King, Professor and Director, School of Leadership and Policy Studies, and Carolyn J. Palmer, Associate Professor, School of Leadership and Policy Studies, Bowling Green University

Why are some college students more tolerant of diversity than others? How do college students become sensitive members of a multicultural society and effective citizens of the world? Research is beginning to offer preliminary evidence about the cognitive capabilities students need in diverse and increasingly interconnected environments.

For some, the term "tolerance" may not truly express the complex, multifaceted ideal of open-minded acceptance and appreciation that educational leaders increasingly believe is a critical goal of higher education. For our purposes, however, we define "tolerance" as "the ability to accept individuals for who they are, to appreciate and respect differences, and to empathize" (Chickering and Reisser, 1993). Using this definition, a clear relationship between educational level and tolerance for diversity has consistently been noted by previous researchers. Exactly how education affects tolerance and specifically the relation between levels of intellectual development and tolerance is still largely unexplained.

In some earlier studies, including a dissertation by Kathe Taylor, the relationship between intellectual development and tolerance was posited on "the assumption that as students grew intellectually toward a view of knowledge that was contextual, their ability to respect and accord legitimacy to multiple perspectives would increase" (Taylor, 1990). Taylor found a statistically significant, but small relationship between tolerance for diversity and intellectual development.

Building on this earlier research, we explored why some college students are more tolerant of diversity than others, and specifically, whether higher levels of reflective thinking make possible higher levels of tolerance. We explored specifically whether the level of a student's intellectual development correlated with levels of prejudice toward African Americans, levels of prejudice toward homosexuals, and tolerance.

Conceptual Frameworks

Research on stereotyping and prejudice by Patricia Devine provides a basis for our exploration of tolerance among college students. Her work on automatic and controlled components of stereotyping and prejudice has found stereotypes and personal beliefs to be conceptually distinct cognitive structures. She asserts that "whereas high-prejudice persons are likely to have personal beliefs that overlap substantially with the cultural stereotype, low-prejudice persons have decided that the stereotype is an inappropriate basis for behavior or evaluation and experience a conflict between the automatically activated stereotype and their personal beliefs" (Devine, 1989). Therefore, a nonprejudiced response requires an intentional "stereotype inhibiting process" which replaces a reaction based on an automatically activated stereotype with a more considered (or controlled) judgment based on personal belief. Devine acknowledged the need for time and cognitive capacity in order for this process to occur, but her research to date has not described the explicit connections between these two factors and stereotype inhibition.

Building on her research, we employed the "Reflective Judgment Model" developed by Kirchener and King--a model of cognitive development that describes how people justify their beliefs when faced with vexing problems. We used this model to examine the cognitive component of the "stereotype inhibiting process" posited by Devine. Reflective thinking ability is the capacity to make defensible judgments about complex and controversial issues. This theory of intellectual development describes a developmental progression in reasoning skills and has been influential in developing educational strategies to advance the goals of contemporary liberal learning.

The Reflective Judgment Model contains sets of assumptions, or "stages," each of which has its own logical coherency. Movement from lower to higher stages involves increasing complexity, sophistication, and comprehensiveness in the judgment process. The model describes increasingly complex ways individuals evaluate knowledge claims and explain and defend their points of view on controversial issues.

Traditional-age undergraduate students typically evidence reasoning that is characterized in this model as "prereflective" or "quasi-reflective." Prereflective thinkers reason based upon the assumption that one gains knowledge through direct, personal observation or through authority figures. They assume that the knowledge they gain in these ways is correct and certain. Decisions or judgments made in response to an automatically activated stereotype are similar to these prereflective judgements in that they are based on the "authority" of society or common belief, assumed to be correct, and not questioned.

Quasi-reflective reasoning recognizes that knowledge claims about ill-structured problems contain elements of uncertainty. Quasi-reflective thinkers are unsure how to deal with the inherent ambiguity of ill-structured problems. They are more likely to recognize that a stereotype is an inappropriate criterion upon which to base a judgment. However, lacking a full ability to weigh and sort the evidence in a particular situation, they may fall back on "gut feelings" or their own past experiences that have reinforced a stereotype.

Few undergraduate students evidence reflective thinking at the most advanced stages described in the model. Individuals in these stages accept that their understanding of the world is not "given" and requires active construction. They also see that knowledge needs to be understood in the context in which it is generated. Evidence is also explicitly used in this stage as a central criterion for evaluating the validity of a judgment. It is our hypothesis that an individual's ability to undergo a process of inhibiting the formation of stereotypes may be related to his or her level of intellectual development as indicated by the capacity to make reflective judgments.


We examined the relationship between tolerance and intellectual development among college students using a correlational research design. Intellectual development was defined for the purposes of this study using the Reflective Judgment Model. In the absence of a strong instrument to measure a more global concept of tolerance, the construct was operationally defined for this study as low levels of prejudice toward African Americans and homosexuals. We recognize that racial prejudice and prejudice based on sexual orientation are only two elements of prejudice, but they are very important issues on America's college campuses today and they provided a framework to begin to test our hypothesis in a controlled way.

Our sample was drawn from undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at a four-year public university in the Midwest. Participants were solicited purposefully across educational levels from college freshman to advanced doctoral students to yield a desired sample size of 48 students. The sample included 16 students (8 women, 8 men) at each of the three general levels of reflective judgment.


We found that intellectual development is significantly related to levels of prejudice toward African Americans, levels of prejudice toward homosexuals, and tolerance. Tolerance was operationally defined for this study by summing the prejudice measures and reversing the score. The prejudice measures were negatively correlated with intellectual development, indicating that higher levels of prejudice are more likely to be found in individuals who evidence lower levels of intellectual development. Concomitantly, a moderate positive correlation found between tolerance and intellectual development indicates that higher levels of tolerance are more likely to be found in individuals with higher levels of intellectual development. In addition, a large portion of the variance in tolerance scores (44 percent) could be accounted for by reflective judgment level.

Our research offers preliminary evidence that tolerance for diversity is related to reflective judgment--to the ways individuals approach and resolve complex, ill-structured problems. Further, there appears to be a critical level of reflective thinking ability needed for truly tolerant responses to those who are different from oneself. That is, scoring above the mean on tolerance was associated with reasoning at or above a quasi-reflective level. Strikingly, almost nobody below the mean on tolerance in our study was above Stage 4 of the model suggesting a difficulty in remaining intolerant once one becomes quasi-reflective in one's thinking. Stage 4 is the point where individuals start to realize the impact of evidence and the need to weigh various sources and types of evidence in developing their opinions. Here students begin to wrestle with these problems on their own and to take a stand in light of an increased understanding of the abstract concepts of knowledge and justification. However, they are still at a point at which knowing is seen as somewhat idiosyncratic to the individual. They have not figured out how to generalize ways of using evidence to support their opinions across content areas or domains.

The transition from Stage 3 thinking to Stage 4 thinking signals the shift from pre-reflective to quasi-reflective thinking. There is an important gain in abandoning "ignorant certainty" in favor of "intelligent confusion," as B. M. Kroll has put it. This transition is also precisely the movement that tends to occur during the college years. Though this movement may seem small, it is by no means inconsequential. Students are moving away from the absolutism of pre-reflective thinking toward reflective thinking where they are beginning to use evidence to support their judgements. Understanding the use of evidence and using relevant evidence are vital abilities key to developing tolerance--the capacity for making reasoned responses to others, not on the basis of stereotypes, but on the basis of evidence or individuating information in the context at hand.


The results of this research imply that efforts within higher education to develop and build students' reflective thinking ability both in and out of the classroom are likely to have an accompanying positive impact on their tolerance levels. Specific curricular and cocurricular interventions can develop students' reflective judgment abilities. It is important for higher education to employ intentional interventions to facilitate the development of reflective thinking as an important end goal in itself. However, based on the findings of this study, educators may also do so to develop the cognitive capability underlying tolerance. Given the difficulty of attributing causality, the converse may also be true: what educators do in the area of building tolerance might also help some students reach higher levels of reflective thinking ability.

Developing respect for human diversity by replacing racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism with an appreciation for racial, gender, and cultural differences is a common learning goal of college and university educators. Educators should intentionally point students toward curricular and cocurricular learning experiences that promote tolerance, especially those based on developmental principles.

This research underscores the need not only to offer intentionally designed learning experiences for college students that will foster tolerance for diversity, but also to guide and direct students to become involved in these activities purposefully as essential components of their higher education experience.

Sources: Chickering, A. W. and L. Reisser. Education and Identity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993); Devine, P. G. "Stereotypes and Prejudice: Their Automatic and Controlled Components," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 56 (1) (1989): 5-18; King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994); Kroll, B. M. "Reflective Inquiry in a College English Class," Liberal Education 78 (1) (1992): 10-13; Taylor, K. L. "The Dilemma of Difference: The Relationship of the Intellectual Development, Racial Identity, and Self Esteem of Black and White Students to Their Tolerance for Diversity," unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland, (1990).

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We found that intellectual development is significantly related to levels of prejudice toward African Americans, levels of prejudice toward homosexuals, and tolerance...higher levels of prejudice are more likely to be found in individuals who evidence lower levels of intellectual development.

Cultural Diversity and Cognitive Development: What Are the Connections?
One of the most exciting areas of new diversity research is in the area of connections between teaching about diversity and increasing levels of cognitive development. This article and the one "Encountering Diversity on Campus and in the Classroom" on page 12 are both part of a series exploring this emerging area of research. Watch for additional articles on this topic in upcoming issues and also see "New Arguments for Diversifying the Curriculum: Advancing Student's Cognitive Development," by Hans Herbert Kogler (Diversity Digest, Summer 1999).

Implications for Campus Practice
Educational Leaders Should Design Learning Experiences that:

  • help students understand the meaning of stereotypes, the way in which our social heritage involves deeply embedded cultural stereotypes that are much too frequently unquestioningly accepted, and the effect that stereotypes have on our thinking processes;
  • urge students to actively question the adequacy of stereotypes as a basis for an evaluation, decision, or action;
  • encourage students who are facing someone who is different to suspend judgment while getting to know this individual as a person with his or her own dreams, expectations, and experiences;
  • assist students in coming to understand the role of evidence in the formation and justification of a viewpoint;
  • teach students ways to weigh and evaluate evidence, and encourage them to take stands on controversial issues based on their understanding of evidence; and
  • aid students in becoming better able to evaluate evidence on which their own and others' judgments are based.

Our research offers preliminary evidence that tolerance for diversity is related to reflective judgment--to the ways individuals approach and resolve complex, ill-structured problems. Further, there appears to be a critical level of reflective thinking ability needed for truly tolerant responses to those who are different from oneself.