Comparison of American and Austrian Adolescents Attitudes toward Diversity
University of Missouri
(Research was conducted as an
undergraduate student at Penn State Altoona. Funded in part by a 2002 Paolucci Research Grant.)
573 814 - 1339
*Lauren Jacobson, Ph.D.
*Karyn McKinney, Ph.D.
Penn State Altoona
Comparison of American and Austrian Adolescents Attitudes toward Diversity
As the population in the United States becomes more diverse, it is
increasingly important to promote positive attitudes toward people from various
backgrounds. The emergence of more sophisticated cognitive skills makes
adolescence an opportune time for intervening in ways that promote tolerance
toward and acceptance of diverse people. Cross-cultural research provides
insight into cultural influences on the development of diversity attitudes. The
goal of this exploratory study was to examine and compare diversity attitudes
of young adolescents in America and Austria. Five diversity domains were
investigated, including race, gender, disability, age, and religion. Overall,
American adolescents tended to hold more tolerant diversity attitudes than
Austrian adolescents. Findings will be discussed regarding cultural influences
on the formation of adolescents diversity attitudes.
adolescents, cross-cultural research, diversity attitudes, tolerance
Adolescence is characterized as a period of multiple changes across
several developmental domains. As suggested by Life Span theory, understanding
the context of these experiences is vital to understanding developmental change
(Lerner, 1986). Evolvement of advanced cognitive skills allows adolescents to
think in abstract ways, to view the world from anothers perspective, and to
think in relative rather than absolute terms (Keating, 1990). These new
cognitive skills also enable adolescents to navigate the complex task of
identity formation, considered by many to be the most important developmental
task of adolescence (Erikson, 1968).
Moreover, adolescents are also encountering the broadening of their
social context, specifically, the heightened importance of, contact with, and
influence of their same-age peers (Brown, 1990). As adolescents forge their own
identity and start to move away from the family, friendships and peers become
increasingly more important (Hartup, 1996). These developmental and contextual
factors make adolescents prime candidates for those interested in creating
The developmental process has been further complicated recently by
the increasing diversity of the United States population (Phinney &
Alipuria, 1996). This has heightened the importance of developing and
implementing intervention programs designed to promote tolerance and acceptance
of people from various backgrounds (Lerner, 1998). Minority adolescents may
encounter an intensified identity formation experience as they negotiate the
process within a predominantly white society (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986).
Some research has suggested that, at least with respect to attitudes
toward race and especially African Americans, the beliefs of European Americans
have become gradually more accepting, less overtly hostile, and more
egalitarian (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1998; McConahay, Hardee, & Batts,
1981). However, there are clear indications that old-fashioned forms of
racism have been replaced by more subtle, indirect, and rationalizable forms
of these negative attitudes (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1998, p.119). Thus, one reason to find ways to enhance
diversity attitudes of white youth would be to simplify the challenging task of
identity formation for minority adolescents.
Unfortunately, much of the research to date has focused on
unidimensional forms of diversity (Jacobson, 1999) examining such issues as the
attitudes of Whites toward blacks (Madsen, Stewart, & Potok, 1985) or
non-disabled people toward the disabled (Gillies & Shackley, 1988). Moreover,
many intervention programs, especially those based in academic settings, tend
to relegate discussions of diversity to particular dates and holidays
(Derman-Sparks, 1991). Although such approaches may be appropriate for
school-aged children, they do not take advantage of the developmental
capacities of adolescence.
Guided by Life Span theory, this project was designed to expand our
understanding of factors affecting diversity attitude development. Life Span
theory, as framed by developmental contextualism, suggests that it is critical
to understand individuals within the socio-cultural and historical contexts in
which they are developing (Lerner, 1986; Birkel, Lerner, & Smyer, 1989;
Belsky, Lerner, & Spanier, 1984). Research has also shown that examining
cultural variables is important for fully understanding the process of
development (Bukowski & Sippola, 1998; Schneider, 1998). Thus, by examining
diversity attitudes cross-culturally, new insights may be gained regarding the
role of culture in the development of diversity attitudes. This knowledge will
provide opportunities to strengthen and enhance existing intervention programs,
as well as provide a foundation for developing new programs, that promote
tolerance and acceptance of diverse people.
In fact, the current study has been designed as an extension of an
on-going tolerance promotion and intervention and research study in the United
States. TheCelebrate Diversity
project was established in 1994 and designed to promote positive attitudes
toward diversity among young adolescents. Each year, the attitudes of a new
cohort of 7thand 8thgraders are assessed in October and
May. The present study served as an extension of this on-going project by
comparing Austrian adolescents attitudes to those of their American
counterparts, where data for Austrian participants were collected only once.
purpose of this exploratory study, then, was to examine similarities and
differences among American and Austrian adolescents attitudes toward
diversity. Specifically, we were interested in how adolescents feel and think
about people from a variety of backgrounds, including those who would be
considered a minority because of their race, gender, disability, age, or
religious beliefs. Thus, we sought to answer the following three questions:
there differences between young Austrian and American adolescents diversity
there differences between boys and girls diversity attitudes?
there meaningful demographic variables (e.g., ethnicity/nationality, parents
education levels, or family structure) that influence adolescents diversity
Cross-cultural data were derived from two samples, including young
American and Austrian adolescents.
American Participants.Young adolescents were recruited from various schools in Central
Pennsylvania. Data were collected during theCelebrate Diversityworkshop in September 2002. The American sample
consisted of 205 adolescents between 11 and 14 years of age, of which 131 (64%)
were female and 74 (36%) were male participants. The students attended sixth,
seventh, or eighth grade at a public (N = 83) or parochial school (N = 122) in
Central Pennsylvania. The majority of students were European Americans (93%),
living in families containing both their biological parents (83%), where the
mother worked outside the home (80%).
Austrian Participants.Young adolescents were recruited from two Austrian schools in the
province of Burgenland. Data were collected over a three-day period in
September 2002 from sixth, seventh, and eighth grade public school students. Of
the 158 participants, 94 (59%) were females and 64 (41%) were males between the
ages of 11 and 15 years. The vast majority of participants were Austrian
nationals (96%), while the remaining participants originated from countries
such as Bosnia, Hungary, Rumania, Slovenia, and Turkey. The majority of the
students lived with both their biological parents (72%), and came from families
where the mother worked outside the home (68%). Table 1 summarizes demographic
data on the American and Austrian sample.
Demographic Information on the American and
Note.Trad. = Traditional Families; Non-Trad. = Non-Traditional Families
In terms of race attitudes, American adolescents from
non-traditional families tended to be more tolerant than were American
adolescents from traditional families, or Austrian adolescents from
non-traditional families. Specifically, American adolescents from
non-traditional families had a race mean of 3.76 (SD= 0.3), and American adolescents from traditional families had a
mean of 3.68 (SD= 0.36), while
Austrian adolescents from traditional families had a mean of 3.14 (SD= 0.45), and Austrian adolescents
from non-traditional families had a mean of 2.93 (SD= 0.62), a difference which was found to be significant [F(df = 2, 357) = 4.62,p<.05]. However, no significant
differences were found between American adolescents from non-traditional
families and Austrian adolescents from traditional families.
With respect to religion attitudes, American adolescents from
non-traditional families were again more tolerant than were American adolescents
from traditional families, or Austrian adolescents from non-traditional
families. American adolescents from non-traditional families had a religion
mean of 3.26 (SD= 0.60), American
adolescents from traditional families had a mean of 3.08 (SD= 0.51), Austrian adolescents from non-traditional families had
a mean of 2.68 (SD= 0.62), and
Austrian adolescents from traditional families had a mean of 2.87 (SD= 0.53), which was found to be a
significant difference [F(df = 2,
355) = 3.59,p<.05]. No significant
differences were found between American adolescents from non-traditional
families and Austrian adolescents from traditional families. In addition, no
significant differences were found between Austrian adolescents from
traditional and non-traditional families.
Overall, results indicated that there were significant differences
in American and Austrian adolescents attitudes toward diversity in the
majority of domains. American adolescents tended to be more tolerant than were
Austrian adolescents. Findings also indicated that American girls were
significantly more tolerant than were American boys as well as Austrian girls
and boys. Finally, we assessed various demographic variables to gain a better
understanding of the impact of culture and cultural socialization on the
development of diversity attitudes. Only one demographic factor, family
structure, indicated differences in race and religion attitudes between
American and Austrian adolescents.
This exploratory cross-cultural study was designed to assess the
diversity attitudes of young Austrian and American adolescents. Areas of
tolerance attitudes investigated were race, gender, disability, age, and
religion. The project was designed as an initial step toward understanding a broader
range of factors affecting the formation of young adolescents attitudes toward
those different from themselves. Of particular interest in this project was the
examination of the role of culture in attitude formation.
Differences between Austrian and American adolescents diversity
In the first question, we were interested in comparing American and
Austrian adolescents diversity attitudes. Findings suggested that American
adolescents held more tolerant diversity attitudes in the race, gender,
disability, and religion domains than did Austrian adolescents. Differences in
tolerance could be attributed, in part, to two factors. First, American
adolescents partook in a diversity enhancement workshop, which might have
influenced participants selection of responses considered most appropriate to
the context and intent of the workshop. Second, American adolescents may be
accustomed to a greater degree of diversity in their school, as well as their
This assumption would be supported by the Contact Hypothesis
(Allport, 1954) regarding racial tolerance, which suggests that increased
contact with minority groups may be positively associated with attitudes that
are more tolerant toward those minorities. However, the notion that mere
contact with other groups inevitably increases tolerance has been challenged by
findings of more recent research. For example, Hewstone and Brown (1986)
pointed out that improved relations between groups are contingent upon a
variety of circumstances, such as
groups having equal status, and that increased contact is not always synonymous
with increased tolerance.
Even though Austrian adolescents tended to score lower on the
majority of diversity domains, they did display more tolerant attitudes in the
age domain relative to their American counterparts. Differences in the degree
of tolerance toward age could be explained by the context of the structural
changes that have occurred in the American and Austrian family over the past
few decades. The extended family in America, consisting of parents, their
children, grandparents or other relatives, has been replaced by nuclear family
households, consisting of only parents and their children (Montepare &
Zebrowitz, 2002), resulting in decreased contact between grandparents and
Although the evolution of the extended family to the nuclear family
in Austria is similar to that in America (Hoerl, 1996), many adult children in
Austria continue to live in close proximity of their elderly parents or
continue to co-reside with their aging parents (Oesterreichisches Statistisches
Zentralamt, 1989). Thus, it may be inferred that increased intergenerational
contact may promote adolescents attitudes toward old age. However, Schwartz
and Simmons (2001) suggested that positive attitudes toward the elderly in the
United States were associated with quality inter-generational interactions,
instead of mere amount of time spent together. In addition, positive parental
attitudes toward aging family members have been linked to increased tolerant
attitudes in children (Gittler, 1949). Future studies should address the type,
such as quality or quantity, of Austrian intergenerational interactions and
parents attitudes toward elderly, to gain a better understanding of the
factors that influence tolerant age attitudes.
Differences between boys and girls diversity attitudes
In the second question, we wanted to examine differences in
diversity attitudes between boys and girls. Results indicated that American
girls tended to be more tolerant in the race, gender, disability, and religion
domain compared to American boys as well as Austrian boys and girls.
Conversely, Austrian boys consistently tended to be less tolerant in a variety
of diversity domains relative to other adolescents. These findings are not
unique in the sense that differences in attitudes and behavior between males
and females are well documented in the literature. For example, studies have
suggested that in general, girls tend to be more caring and empathic (Turner &
Gervai, 1995), while boys tend to be more active, rational (Constantinople,
1973), and more aggressive in many cultures (Whiting & Edwards, 1988).
Similarly, Hoover and Fishbein (1999) confirmed gender differences
in the development of prejudice and gender role stereotyping. The authors
examined responses from 433 white male and female students attending junior and
senior high school and college. Findings showed that girls were more likely to
display tolerant attitudes toward a variety of diversity issues than were boys,
regardless of age or grade. Subsequently, findings were surprising in the sense
that Austrian girls were consistently less tolerant than were American
In contrast to the other domains of diversity, the age domain did
not engender the same differences in tolerance relative to the race, gender,
disability, and religion domain. As mentioned earlier, boys and girls across
cultures showed no significant differences in attitudes in the age domain. This
may largely be a reflection of the high value placed on youth and youthfulness
in industrialized cultures (Gottlieb, 2001). Another explanation could be drawn
from the fact that despite efforts to promote tolerance, negative stereotypes
about and contempt for older adults continue to exist (Maxwell & Maxwell,
1980). As a result, societys negative attitudes toward older adults may shape
adolescents thoughts and feelings about the elderly.
Demographic variables that influence adolescents diversity
Finally, analyses were conducted to explore the degree to which
demographic variables other than gender were identified in adolescents
attitudes formation. Variables included age, grade, family structure, number of
siblings, birth order, and mothers and fathers level of education. Family structure
was the only demographic variable to indicate significant differences in race
and religion attitudes between American and Austrian adolescents. American
adolescents from non-traditional families tended to be more tolerant in the
race domain than were American adolescents from traditional families as well as
Austrian adolescents from non-traditional families. Similar results were found
in the religion domain where American adolescents from non-traditional families
were more likely to express tolerant attitudes toward religion than were
American adolescents from traditional families and Austrian adolescents from
non-traditional families. Interestingly, no differences in diversity attitudes
were found between Austrian adolescents from traditional and non-traditional
It can be speculated that higher tolerant racial and religious
attitudes held by American adolescents from non-traditional families may be
linked to the diverse nature of blended or other family structures. For
example, many families comprised of two biological or adoptive parents may
uphold stricter values regarding divorce or remarriage relative to other
families. In addition, religious affiliation may also discourage religious
diversity. Thus, it could be suggested that adolescents from traditional
families may show less tolerant attitudes toward a variety of diversity
domains. However, the exact nature of the relationship between family structure
and diversity attitudes remains unclear.
Results need to be interpreted
in light of several methodological limitations. Adolescents in the American
sample were not representative of the local population from which they were
recruited. The teachers in their various public and parochial schools
recommended students for participation in the Celebrate Diversity
workshop. Thus, results may not
accurately reflect the characteristics of the American sample and may
exacerbate the degree of differences between American and Austrian adolescents.
Moreover, responses made by the American participants may have been influenced
by their knowledge of the programs mission to promote and embrace diversity.
In addition, the possibility exists that American adolescents simply selected
the answers considered most preferable by the organizers of the program,
regardless of their personal values. In contrast, the Austrian sample was not
exposed to any type of treatment prior to the data collection and students were
unaware of the existence of theCelebrate
Diversityworkshop. In light of these limitations, future research should
also include adolescents who are not participants of a diversity enhancement
program in order to obtain data from samples whose primary differences are a
function of cultural variation.
Moreover, because the measurement instrument was translated from
English into German, the possibility exists that certain items may have been
culture specific, which may have resulted in findings that were culturally
biased. Thus, the meaning of some questions may have been changed or lost in
the translation process. In addition, American participants completed their
questionnaires in a large auditorium style setting, allowing for the
possibility that their peers may have influenced their responses.
Future cross-cultural studies should include adolescents from a more
diverse group of students in America, as well as in Austria. It is imperative
that subsequent studies include students who are not part of a program to
increase tolerance in order to get a better picture of adolescents attitudes
toward a variety of people from diverse backgrounds. Thus, future
cross-cultural studies may provide more accurate data than information derived
from this study. It is evident that future research should attempt to build on
the information provided in this research.
Differences in attitudes toward various diversity issues within as
well as across the American and Austrian sample indicated the need for
tolerance intervention programs. Even though research suggested that certain
attitudes, such as racial awareness (Renninger & Williams, 1966), are
established during the preschool years, cognitive changes render the adolescent
period as the optimal time for implementing intervention programs designed to
enhance the level of tolerance (Keating, 1990).
Building on the Contact Hypothesis (Allport, 1954), intervention
programs should provide opportunities for adolescents to interact and socialize
with people from diverse backgrounds not only within but also outside of school
settings to promote tolerance. This is important because Manetti and her
colleagues (2001) observed that nine- to eleven-year-old Italian children only
showed tolerance toward mentally retarded co-students in a hypothetical setting
but not in an integrated classroom atmosphere. Thus, cognitive changes during
early adolescence may provide an opportunity to combine the development of
hypothetical reasoning with interaction of diverse people to increase tolerant
attitudes. Much work remains to be done for researchers, professionals, teachers,
and parents in developing strategies to incorporate adolescents biological,
psychological, and cognitive advances in the development of positive attitudes
toward a myriad of diversity domains.
Results of this exploratory study indicated significant differences
in diversity attitudes between young American and Austrian adolescents, as well
as between boys and girls. As the population is getting more diverse in the
United States, adolescents will be exposed to people from a variety of diverse
backgrounds. For example, schools are integrating students with various
disabilities into regular classrooms across the country and increased life
expectancy will provide opportunities for increased inter-generational
interactions. Thus, it is imperative that efforts at enhancing diversity
attitudes be targeted not only at increasing racial tolerance, but also at a
much broader diversity context including disability, gender, age and religious
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