Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

I don’t have anything against insert-group-here but…

April 11th, 2011

Prejudice AbstractI spent the weekend at a science fiction convention, and while I had a really wonderful time, it made me think about prejudice.

For those of you who aren’t part of that world, conventions are essentially gatherings of people interested in the same subject, although there’s usually more to it than that. One of my favourite parts is that attendees at conventions of this type tend to pride themselves on tolerance, so there’s an unusual openness about discussing – and displaying – political, social, sexual and sartorial differences. It’s pretty hard to feel “weird” at a SF convention; there’s almost always someone considerably less ordinary in the next room.

The hard part is always coming back to the “real world”. Many of my fellow attendees feel they can only be open about being [gay/atheist/a rape survivor/a communist/mentally or physically ill/an immigrant/adopted/an anime buff/polyamorous/otherwise different] in protected circumstances like conventions. How to change that?

A lot of research has been done on why prejudice exists and what exacerbates or reduces it. For example, it’s been found that when people are emotionally depleted – angry, anxious, sleepy, frustrated, threatened, drunk or stressed – they become more willing to express their prejudices. Another study showed that we’re more likely to behave according to our prejudices when we’ve recently demonstrated that we’re not prejudiced: participants who’d had a chance to disagree with blatantly sexist statements were more likely to support hiring a man for a stereotypically male job.

Markus Brauer and Abdelatif Er-rafiy took an interesting approach to combating prejudice. They put French study participants in a waiting room that contained six posters, one of which was either a poster about eating more vegetables or a poster showing a dozen Arab individuals with widely varying descriptions and appearances and the slogan “What makes us the same is that we are all different.” After a few minutes, the participants were asked to do an unrelated task for 15 minutes, then fill out a questionnaire that included questions on how much individual members of ethnic groups differed from each other.

Once finished, each participant was told to go to another building – but along the way, an Arab woman walked in front of him or her and dropped a large bag, spilling its contents. Did our study participants stop to help her?

They did – if they’d seen the poster about Arabs all being different. Merely sitting in a waiting room displaying that poster made the participants much more likely to help an Arab individual. Other experiments by Brauer and Er-rafiy confirmed that highlighting differences among a minority group reduces prejudices about members of that group.

Here’s another useful finding: a study found that presenting social equality issues as being about moral ideals (such as equal treatment), rather than moral obligations (such as non-discrimination) made study participants feel more positively about actions to reduce inequality without a sense of threat to their social identities.

Another recent study looked at the process of confronting people about their prejudices. The results showed that prefacing the confrontation with self-affirmation – reminding people of positive things about their own characters – made people more likely to respond positively.

If your personal activism includes fighting prejudice and discrimination, you may be able to apply some of the above to your own tactics. Highlight the differences. Make it easier for people to accept and respond to your actions by incorporating ideals and self-affirmation.

And, of course, keep being open about your own minority group memberships. Western society has made enormous steps toward acceptance and tolerance, mostly due to the courageous individuals who have risked being open about themselves to other people. Hundreds of studies have shown that contact with a minority group member reduces prejudice against that group. I’m a bisexual atheist. What are you?

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