Title: Ethnic Stereotypes and Attitudes: The Role of Social Knowledge
Name: Vasile B. Cernat
Year: 2003
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

The Romanian-Hungarian ethnic conflict from March 1990 was the first conflict in post-communist Eastern-Europe but also one of the few that didn't spread. How could we best understand this conflict from a psychological perspective?

A recent evolutionary model maintains that the main cause of intergroup conflicts is a relative large number of young men. From this perspective, the main "culprit" could be a communist decree from 1966 which forbade abortions, increasing Romania's fertility rate threefold in just one year and producing a large number of citizens that entered the marital market at the end of the '80s and the beginning of '90s, that is, precisely when the Romanian society was marked by several internal conflicts. Nevertheless, the analyses showed that the young male/adult male ratio was only 45 at the onset of these conflicts, well below the threshold of 60 specified by the authors of this model.

On the other hand, during the last decade of the communist regime, Romania was hit by a severe economic crisis, so one could argue that the severe frustrations endured for several years by Romanians led to the March 1990 conflict. Contrary to this view, the analysis of 15 national surveys showed very weak links between several measures of Romanians' economic status or satisfaction and their perceptions of Hungarians.

The threat approach was more successful: the analysis of a national survey consistently showed that the Romanians who believed that Hungary has territorial claims over the Transylvanian region of Romania were more likely to stereotype this out-group negatively and that this relation was mediated by the perception of Hungarians as threatening. Because the territorial claims belief was not predicted by the degree of direct inter-group contact I turned my attention toward the ideological sources of bias, arguing that Romanians' perception of Hungarians could be best understood as shaped by two ideological orientations: (1) the national communist ideology, promoted by the communist regime of Ceauşescu and (2) the pro-European orientation, shaped by Romania's efforts to join the European Union. The national communist ideology created the psychological bases of the march 1990 conflict by depicting Hungarians as main national enemies who are constantly conspiring to take over Transylvania, whereas the pro-European orientation made possible the ethnic reconciliation through a series of psychological processes triggered by political actions destined to satisfy the European requests for inter-ethnic respect and tolerance and by people's efforts to maintain a positive social identity.

Consistent with this vision one set of studies revealed that Romanians' symbolic national identity is uniquely associated to idiosyncratic beliefs promoted by the national communist ideology and that the experimental manipulation of such beliefs led to significant changes of Romanians' stereotypes of Hungarians, whereas another set of studies showed that Romanians' European identification is increased by the weak status of the national group and has positive effects on the perception and evaluation of Hungarians.

Bibliography: Cernat, V. (2005). Psihologia stereotipurilor. Iaşi: Polirom.

Cernat, V. (book submitted for publication). Psihologia conflictelor etnice. Cazul de la Târgu Mureş.