Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Don’t tell ME who to like

September 8th, 2011

Racism. Stop It! Multiculturalism campaign by the Canadian Department of Citizenship and ImmigrationChange your opinion! Because I said so!

Not the most appealing message, is it? And I think you’ll agree that its chances of having an effect are pretty slim.

And yet this is the approach used by a number of anti-prejudice campaigns. Stop racism. Eliminate sexism. No more discrimination. It might sound good to those of us already on board, but new research shows that it might be coming across as controlling to those it’s actually aimed at – and making prejudice even worse.

A group of Canadian researchers recently tested this possibility. They created two brochures for a supposed initiative to reduce prejudice and asked university students to read one and then fill out questionnaires about racism and their own attitudes.

A third of the students were given a brochure that emphasized the societal value of not being prejudiced, with phrases like “The Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act  prohibits discrimination in employment” and “companies face legal liability for workplace prejudice” and “Research studies reveal that people with prejudiced attitudes are at risk of being excluded or ostracized”.

A third of them were given a brochure that emphasized the personal benefit associated with choosing not to be prejudiced, with phrases like “diversity makes our society great because it brings a wealth of knowledge and experience together” and “You are free to choose to value nonprejudice” and “In today’s increasingly diverse and multicultural society, such a personal choice is likely to help you feel connected to yourself and your social world”.

The remaining third of the students only read a definition of prejudice before filling out the questionnaires.

PrejudiceThe results were striking. The students who read the personal-benefit brochure showed significantly less prejudice in their questionnaire answers than the students who hadn’t read a brochure. Those who’d read the societal-value brochure, however, showed more prejudice than those who hadn’t read anything. A second experiment asking participants to agree or disagree with statements about racism found the same results.

The researchers theorize that this occurred because urging people to comply with external standards creates a feeling of rebellion:

“When we eliminate people’s freedom to choose egalitarian goals or to value diversity on their own terms, we may be inciting hostility toward the perceived source of the pressure (i.e., the stigmatized group), or a desire to rebel against prejudice reduction itself… When people see the value in nonprejudice, they are more likely to internalize it and sustain it.”

So, if you’re trying to reduce prejudice against any group, don’t use pressure tactics or “you should” language. Don’t remind people of the rules against prejudice or discrimination. Don’t talk about social norms or disapproval.

Instead, find the benefit in lack of prejudice and focus on that. Talk about choice.

Because, really, we should all change because it accomplishes something good – not because someone tells us to.

So, get out there and change your approach. Because I told you to. Because it will work better.

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