I see people constantly shaming other peoples’ identities on social media about racial issues (i.e. if you voted for Trump you’re racist) and I think: that ain’t going to help. So I wrote this, an explanation of why shaming doesn’t reduce prejudice, where prejudice comes from, the effect of media on reinforcing stereotypes, and how a curated media diet can induce feelings of empathy and compassion and, thus, reduce prejudice.
How to deal with your racist uncle:
Considering Group Identity and the Effect of Media when Crafting Persuasive Messages to Reduce Prejudice.
A common response to instances of perceived prejudice are messages that induce shame, for instance, by describing an entire social group as racist. In terms of Theory of Reasoned Action, shaming messages could reduce prejudiced behavior by acting as subjective norms that, reliant on an individual’s personal motivation to comply with those norms, thwart behavioral intention (O’Keefe, 2015). Shaming will not produce real attitudinal change, however, but merely inhibit behavior that could lead to censure. If shame can be avoided, the reprehensible behavior continues. For instance, in a study that used changes on levels of self-esteem caused by racial identification as a proxy to measure instances of aversive racism, Mastro et al. (2008) found that exposing white students to Latino characters in fiction resulted in higher levels of self-esteem for the students only when the narratives presented the Latino characters under an ambiguous condition that neither confirmed nor rejected common stereotypes of Latinos as lacking intelligence—that is, when shame could be avoided. When the narratives presented the Latino characters under a stereotypical condition (i.e., lacking intelligence), the white students did not report higher levels of self-esteem; on the contrary, they showed higher levels of identification with the Latino character. Mastro et al. (2008) argue that this suggests that, on instances when biases can be taken as an indication of racial prejudice, individuals overcompensate by showing more favorable evaluations of the outgroup, and that biases become relevant as behavioral guides only when they could be justified as not related to race. In another study, Choi, Crandall, and La (2014) found that non-Black subjects who evaluated favorably a high-quality ad showing a black model were subsequently more critical of a low-quality ad also showing a black model than those subjects who did not see the high-quality ad showing a black model first. This suggests that those given the opportunity to evaluate favorably a person of the outgroup granted themselves “permission” to be prejudiced next. Similarly, in what anthropologists call the “myth of racial democracy” nationals of Latin American countries tend to justify prejudice against dark-skinned individuals as an aesthetic preference since, because of our multiracial nature, we “cannot” be racist and thus be subject to shame (Uhlmann et al., 2002).
Thus, while overt instances of racial prejudice have declined (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008), racial antipathy persists, either as discriminatory responses that individuals justify as coming from causes other than race and thus allow them to “safely” sustain a non-biased image (Mastro, Behm-Morawitz & Kopacz, 2008), or as implicit biases, the unconscious negative feelings toward an outgroup considered by Aversive Racism Theory.
A study that assessed the effect that race representation in video games has on prejudice (Burgess, Dill, Stermer, Burgess, & Brown, 2011) suggests how prevalent these implicit biases still are, even among people who do not show overtly racist tendencies. After watching short video game clips that presented either a black or a white character, then an image that the participants had to identify as either violent or not, the participants in the study identified violent images faster when the clip preceding the images showed a black character than when the clip presented a white character, suggesting an unconscious association of black people with violence.
The problem with shaming messages is not so much their emotional charge or the lack of strong evidence to support the claims they may contain. Since behavior is ultimately controlled by emotions (Amodio, Devine, & Hamon-Jones, 2007; Bench & Lench, 2013; Westen, 2008), emotionally charged rhetoric often proves to be more persuasive than rational arguments, especially in cases where there is little motivation to elaborate (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981). The problem is that shame promotes avoidance of potential punishments rather than approach to potential rewards (Schmader & Lickel, 2006). Unlike guilt, which promotes reflection of one’s transgressions and, therefore, dissonance reduction through reparatory behavior, shame produces fear and “the desire to escape social scrutiny” (Amodio et al., p. 529). Baek and Yoon (2017) findings support this hypothesis. In a 2×2 study that compared compliance with messages that warned about potential loses compared to messages that promoted potential gains after priming the participants with feelings of either guilt or shame, they found that inducing shame increased compliance with messages that warned about potential loses, while inducing guilt increased compliance with messages that promoted potential gains. Amodio et al. (2007) found that inducing guilt, but not shame, elicited the desire to read prejudice-reduction articles.
Because shame involves a negative evaluation of the self, while guilt implies a negative valuation of one’s transgressions (Baek & Yoon, 2017), receivers often perceive shaming messages as an attack on their identity. Hence, instead of an invitation to change, the dissonance that shame produces becomes an invitation to differ to avoid lowering one’s self-esteem. This would be especially the case for individuals with strong group identity, since as the Social Identity Model of De-Individuation predicts, “when social identity becomes salient…conformity to internalized groups will be strong” (Trepte, 2006, p. 266). For instance, a study that assessed the effect of group identification on prejudice and emotion (Johns, Schmader, & Lickel, 2005) found that individuals highly identified as American felt a strong desire to distance themselves from their ingroup after witnessing very negative instances of prejudice (e.g., physical assault or death), yet, compared to individuals with low American identification, the desire to distance themselves from the ingroup was much lower after witnessing mild instances of anti-Arab prejudice (e.g., racial slurs). These findings suggest that for a shaming message to induce compliance, the wrongdoing must be recognized as such to the point that only avoidance would reduce dissonance. Otherwise, individuals will opt to reduce dissonance by justifying or dismissing the prejudiced behavior. In this case, the function of a prejudiced individual’s attitude, which may have been one of knowledge, coming from a partial view of the world that distinguishes between “us” and “them,” and which could have been ameliorated by rendering existing stereotypes less effective as behavioral guides (Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011), becomes one of ego-defense as in “whites are under attack,” a belief which may prove much more difficult to overcome.
Here, my proposal to reduce prejudice is to craft persuasive messages in a manner that instead of creating dissonance by inducing feelings of shame, creates dissonance by inducing positive affect for the outgroup (e.g., compassion or sympathy). For this, the message must include a proposition that, as of Social Judgment Theory proposes, not only will fall within the recipient’s latitude of acceptance, the range of propositions a receiver assesses as reasonable and not threatening to his concept of self (O’Keefe, 2015), but also, as Theory of Reasoned Action proposes, will cause a change in attitude by adding beliefs that will change the perception of the outgroup rather than simply affecting subjective norms that affect behavioral intention. This requires an understanding of the causes of prejudice and the function it serves.
Racism, understood as conscious or unconscious prejudice toward members of a different racial group, may have an innate component in our tendency for ingroup favoritism, a trait that, empirical evidence on conspecific preference suggests, humans share with many other primates (Kelly et al., 2009). Pinker (2011) proposes that ingroup favoritism “must be unlearned, not learned” and mentions the findings of developmental psychologists who found that “preschoolers profess racist attitudes that would appall their liberal parents” (p. 523). Kelly et al. (2009) propose that from an evolutionary perspective, the ability to distinguish the ingroup from the outgroup may serve as a way to reduce potential risks and increase the likelihood of reproduction. Notwithstanding this, if race is a social rather than a biological construct (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016), racial prejudice must also hinge on our perception of what constitutes the outgroup rather than solely natural causes.
Stating that race is a social construct may sound like a politically correct statement, especially when racial differences seem evident to the naked eye, yet the distinction is important not only because from an antiessentialist point of view, boundaries that traditionally define race membership are inaccurate and arbitrary, since “race groupings do not correspond to patterns of human biological variation” (Morning, 2007, p. 445), but because race as a social construct implies that behavior toward the outgroup can change if our perception of what constitutes the outgroup also changes. For instance, in an experiment that presented a group of white children with the opportunity to interact with either a white or a black person, Kinzler and Spelke (2011) found that children under two-and-half-years-old showed no preference for either individual while among children older than five, eleven out of twelve did, for the white person. These findings suggest that while racial preference comes early in life and as a consequence of our tendency to favor the ingroup, as Pinker (2011) proposes, it is, nevertheless, an acquired stance, reliant on recognition of shared attributes to define the outgroup. Kelly et al.’s (2009) research with Han Chinese babies also suggests the universality of ingroup preference and that the ability to recognize and differentiate individuals within our ethnic group develops early in life, yet that this preference is contingent on continuous direct interaction. In Kelly et al.’s (2009) study, three-month-old Chinese babies spent about the same time looking at Chinese and other-race novelty faces presented in photographs, but infants three to six months older spent significantly longer time observing Chinese faces than observing other-race faces.
Race categorization, just as every other type of categorization, may derive from our natural tendency to find patterns in our surroundings, reduce the world into small categories, and rely on generalizations as a strategy to maximize rewards and minimize risks (Sheerer, 2008). Racial categorization accentuates salient traits, such as skin color (Trepte, 2006), and homogenize perceived characteristics, such as warmth or competence, to facilitate understanding (Brown 2000; Cuddy, Fiske & Glick’s, 2007). Take two persons of European ancestry, one of Finish and one of Italian descent. Their shared whiteness becomes a salient trait when compared to a dark-skinned person of Sub-Saharan African descent. Categorized under the same group and in the absence of other cues, we may expect them to behave similarly. However, their skin tone stops being a point of resemblance when we compare them only to each other, and thus a reason to believe that they will behave similarly as well since now skin tone becomes a trait that further distinguishes them. Are they still members of the same rice? Take Hispanics. For practical purposes we are often considered as one ethnic group, yet what race are we? When Hispanics compare ourselves to members of our own group, phenotypic differences such as skin color become salient, but when we compare ourselves to an outgroup, we tend to identify as multiracial and with a superordinate Hispanic identity that is based more on cultural than physical traits (Uhlmann, Dasgupta, Elgueta, Greenwald, & Swanson, 2002).
Stereotypes that homogenize traits within the outgroup may be but a consequence of our attempts to reduce the world into categories to facilitate decision making (Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011; Saleem, Yang & Ramasubramanian, 2016). Ingroup homogeneity, on the other hand, may serve as a way to protect one’s identity, since it is often seen in groups with a minority status and more “frequently seen on identity relevant attributes” (Brown, 2000, p. 751).
As it relies on memory and interpretation, perception is fallible (Eysenck & Keane, 2010). Hence, stereotypes can be wrong. Brown (2000) proposes, however, that it is not useful to think of stereotypes as distortions one must fight because one cannot fight the way the mind works. Brown (2000) suggests that stereotypes should be regarded as guides for action, which can be faulty but are often reliable and that we follow primarily because they demand little processing power and to save time (Eysenck & Keane, 2010; Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011).
Social Identity Theory explains prejudice in terms of group members’ tendency for ingroup favoritism (Brown, 2000) and as a consequence of defining the self in relation to our membership to a group, which we do so that we can acquire the value of that group’s identity (Trepte, 2006). The better our group compares to others, the higher our self-concept. Hence, Social Identity Theory predicts that we will constantly compare to members of an outgroup to either improve our self-esteem or reconsider the advantages of membership to our current group (Trepte, 2006).
Citing empirical research that illustrates examples of xenophobia as the result of perceived conflict with an outgroup, Brown (2000) highlights ingroup identification as the best predictor of intergroup behavior, especially hostile behaviors. Per Social Identity Theory, ingroup favoritism predisposes us not only to believe that our group is better than other groups—be that our ethnic group, gender, political party, or any group to which we claim membership—but also to mistreat the outgroup, even in the absence of objective causes to such favoritism, as a way to enhance our self-esteem (Brown, 2000; Trepte, 2006). Zimbardo’s (n.d.) Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he arbitrarily divided participants into two groups to play the roles of prisoners and guards, showed how strong this innate desire to favor the ingroup can be and how much it obeys to preconceived schemas of behavior. Zimbardo’s (n.d.) experiment had to be stopped because the “guards” ended putting the lives of the “prisoners” in peril.
Notwithstanding this, Brown (2000) also proposes that the self-esteem enhancement hypothesis from Social Identity Theory as an explanation for prejudice does not apply to all instances of group categorization, pointing to empirical evidence that shows a weak correlation between self-esteem and racial bias. Similarly, System Justification Theory poses that under certain circumstances “people who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it” (Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003, p. 32). Jost et al. (2003) findings support this: in a study that included 788 respondents, 81 percent of them white and 19 percent black, not only they found a negative relationship between socio-economic status and conformity to economic inequality, but also that this negative relationship was stronger for black respondents.
The Stereotype Content Model (Cuddy et al., 2007) resolves the self-esteem enhancement paradox by making behavior toward the outgroup dependent on social desirability factors, specifically cognitive and affective considerations derived from the perceived competence and warmth of the outgroup. Per this model, we actively attempt to hurt groups we perceive as cold and try to benefit those we perceive as warm, and we associate with groups we perceive as competent while we avoid those we perceive as less competent. The Stereotype Content Model also predicts that emotions will mediate behavior more strongly than stereotypes and thus, for groups we consider hostile, we will react with anger if we consider them less competent than ourselves, and with fear when we consider them more competent. Based on the Stereotype Content Model, Cuddy et al. (2007) created a graphic model, the BIAS map, that attempted to predict behavior based on the dimensions of active facilitation/harm and passive facilitation/harm, and ran a series of studies that supported the hypotheses of a positive correlation between held stereotypes and behavior, and that emotions have a greater effect than stereotypes on behavior.
Racial prejudice, therefore, may derive from a strong identification with one’s racial group, an inherent desire to favor the ingroup, and biases that result from recognizing a member of the outgroup “as friend or foe and as capable of helping or harming one’s own group” (Cuddy et al., 2007, p. 645). Racial prejudice’s function would be then to either increase one’s self-esteem by enhancing the value of membership to one’s group or to serve as a behavioral guide to protect us from apparent threats and increase the benefits of intergroup interaction. Consequently, racism could be thwarted by either rendering existing stereotypes that lead to prejudice ineffective as behavioral guides or by redefining the self in terms of a larger group that includes members of the outgroup (Brown 2000). That is, by changing a prejudiced individual’s attitude or his attitude function by changing his beliefs. For that, we must then understand where from these beliefs come.
Because of the negative connotations of racism, accepting membership to an overtly racist group signifies lowering one’s concept of the elf, negating one of the benefits of group identity. Hence, most Americans will not only avoid behavior that ostensibly reveals prejudiced attitudes but will also avoid association with overtly prejudiced groups. For instance, a survey from Public Policy Polling made after the Charlottesville attack (Jensen, 2017) shows that 90 percent of white registered voters have an unfavorable view of White Supremacist groups. Members of the alt-right would be the exception, of course, for they ostensibly boast about intergroup biases, but this may be because, for them, the perceived advantages of group protection surpass the disadvantages of shame (Forscher & Kteily, 2017). Nevertheless, and as said before, racial prejudice persists, either because individuals only avoid discriminatory behavior when it could be ascribed to racial motives (Mastro et al., 2008), or because prejudice remains as an unconscious bias (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016; Cuddy et al., 2007).
If most Americans hold a genuine desire for equality, where from do these unconscious biases come from? In the Public Policy Polling survey aforementioned (Jensen, 2017), the similarities between Trump and Clinton voters’ responses to questions that would reveal overt prejudice and the marked differences in their responses to questions related to ingroup identity suggest the important role that an individual’s claimed membership plays on defining attitudes. Both Trump and Clinton voters expressed to have an unfavorable view of white supremacist groups, 84 and 93 percent respectively, yet 45 percent of Trump voters believe that white people face the most discrimination of all races while only 5 percent of Clinton voters do (Jensen, 2017). Similarly, 61 percent of Trump voters are favorable to the figure of Robert E. Lee, and 47 percent oppose to relocate Confederate monuments, while only 17 of Clinton voters are favorable to the figure of Robert E. Lee and only 10 percent oppose to relocate Confederate monuments (Jensen, 2017). That Trump and Clinton voters concentrate in different areas of the country (PoliticalMaps.org, 2016) hints that political sympathy may be linked to geographical location. So too may be racial biases.
For those living in the diverse environment of a multicultural metropolis, such as the city of Los Angeles, appreciating the benefits of diversity may come as a given. Because they have the opportunity to establish various meaningful relationships with members of other racial groups, as either friends, colleagues or simply as fellow city dwellers, they can become “color blind,” claiming membership to superordinate groups defined by characteristics other than race without having to reject their subgroup identity. They may still use mental schemas to categorize new people they encounter, but the continuous interaction allows them to base affective responses more on individual rather than group attributes (Sanders, 2010). However, not everyone lives in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, and even here, the illusion of diversity is lost when one traverses its many neighborhoods. Many remain highly segregated, a consequence of the decades of restrictive covenants enforcing race separation (Sanchez, 2007).
The Racial Dot Map, published electronically by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service (2013), shows how non-diverse American cities still are. Each dot on the map represents an American resident categorized by ethnicity. At the national level, the eastern half of the map is mostly blue, representing the white population, with tinges of green in the southern states and the largest urban areas, representing the black population. The western half of the map is mostly empty, yet blue dots are still the majority. Hispanics, represented by orange dots, concentrate mostly in California and Texas.
At 61.3 percent, non-Hispanic whites are still the majority of the US population (Quickfacts, 2016). Thus, it is not surprising how living in a small town such as Leitchfield Kentucky, where the population is 94.4 percent white, offers little opportunity to interact with people from other races. The revealing part comes when one zooms the Racial Dot Map at the city level in places such as Cleveland, Ohio, where the white population is only 37.3 percent of the total (DADS, 2010), yet lives clearly separated from other groups, hindering contact.
Many cities in America remain highly segregated, with splotches of green, red, and orange surrounded by a sea of blue (University of Virginia, 2013). As a consequence, opportunities to establish meaningful relationships with members of the outgroup are rare, and so are the opportunities to form impressions based on personal attributes rather than categorization that obeys to held schemas (Sanders, 2010).
Add to this the fact that we spend practically most of our free time consuming media (Dill, 2009). We end up forming our perceptions of race from content designed to engage our attention rather than to present an objective view of the world.
The power of how strongly media can mold our assumptions about the world is evident in experiments such as one by Shevy (2008) who compared the mental associations among participants primed with cognitive schemas of country or hip-hop music. Having just heard a few seconds of instrumental-only music, the participants in Shevy’s (2008) study associated country music with conservative, older, white people living in rural areas and hip-hop music with liberal, young, black people living in urban areas. If, as Shevy’s (2008) results suggest, music can communicate such “a large amount of information almost instantaneously and often without conscious effort from audiences… [and] with minimal burden to working memory” (p. 495) other types of media can too. And indeed they do: Unflattering depictions of minorities and women in media and overrepresentation of straight white males (Smith, Choueiti, Pieper, Case & Marsden, 2016) lead to a false sense of normalcy and a conceptualization of race and ethnicity tied to beliefs that we may not be able to verify empirically but still accept not because we are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality but simply because they make sense (Dill, 2009; Saleem et al., 2016).
As humans, we possess the ability to dismiss information that we can readily verify as untrue by comparing it to reality and concepts held within our semantic memory: cats do not talk. However, we may still process as true information that we can only verify vicariously because it does not contradict other semantic concepts within our memory (Bandura, 2001), the “true-if-it-fits” as a learning strategy Strange (2002) refers to, by which we incorporate fictitious assertions from narratives as facts, even when we are aware of its fictional nature. Strange (2002) ran an experiment that exposed participants first to a historical narrative, then to a fictitious narrative that began with the statement that all assertions within the text that did not match the historical narrative were the fruit of the author’s imagination. Strange (2002) then asked the participants to classify a list of statements based on the readings as true or fictitious. Readers not only misattributed half of the assertions to the historical narrative but also rated as probably true a majority of the assertions that came from the fictitious narrative.
The more transported we are by the stories we consume, the more receptive we become to the persuasive content embedded within. During a state of narrative transportation, our mind becomes so busy interpreting the events of a story into a particular narrative that our capacity to counterargue diminishes (Green & Brock, 2002; Laer et al., 2014; Slater, 1999; Slater & Rouner, 2002; Strange, 2002). Not only we end up processing assertions that may be false as true, but we generalize from particular situations portrayed in media to whole social groups (Mastro, 2015) because when interpreting information, our brain distinguishes between perceived facts and events but stores them separately as either semantic or episodic memories (Baars & Gage, 2010, p.38). Moreover, as time passes by, we may forget the source of the information, but the credence we give to it may actually increase in a phenomenon that researchers call “the sleeper effect” (Dill, 2009). Thus, from scenes such as the one where Bette Davis invites the house slaves to “raise a ruckus” in Jezebel (Wyler, 1938), or from the familiarity with which Mammy argues with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (Selznick, 1939), we may wrongly conclude that slaves did not have it that bad, even when we are consciously aware that the scenes are fictitious.
The effect is a reduced sense of agency for those portrayed negatively in media and an enhanced one for the dominant majority resulting in biases that aggravate racial tension and prolong economic and social inequality (Mastro, 2015), even in the absence of legal norms of oppression, and even when discrimination is only perceived rather than made manifest. London and Rosenthal (2013) mention that for African-American students high in rejection sensitivity “success in college may be threatened by perceptions of bias, increased feelings of alienation, and avoidance of support seeking from those in the predominantly white academic institutions that are deemed threatening” (p. 10). Furthermore, racism may lead to poor health. Dill-Shackleford et al. (2016) mention that “invasive police encounters have been associated with increased symptoms of anxiety, posttraumatic stress, reduced disease resistance, depression, hypertension, obesity and chronic illnesses among African Americans” (p. 4). Giscombé and Lobel (2005) propose that increased levels of cortisol during pregnancy due to stress can cause very low birth weight and may be the cause for higher indices of mortality among black infants in America. Additionally, negative stereotypes may turn in a self-fulfilled prophecy when, predisposed to act on held stereotypes and blind to their own privilege as the dominant group, prejudiced individuals have a negative encounter with the outgroup (Saleem et al., 2016).
How then should we craft a persuasive message? A recent article on the Atlantic (O’Brien, 2017) can help us understand the function of prejudiced attitudes. The article tells the story of Andrew Anglin and his failed attempts to define his identity through membership to various groups. Anglin went from vegan to leftist, then to conspiracy theorist and anti-zionist, to hating Western culture and becoming a fan of the lost Muslim tribes of the Philippines, to becoming the publisher of The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist commentary site involved in internet trolling (O’Brien, 2017). Anglin’s mind may be too troubled to be helped, since, as research suggests, internet trolls present abnormally high levels of psychopathy and sadism, and lack the sufficient affective empathy to “internalise the emotional experience of their victims” (Sest & March, 2017, p.71), but his story may serve as an example of the extremes to which some persons would go to satisfy the need to belong. In terms of Katz’s functional approaches to attitude, Anglin’s shifting attitude may be serving a value-expressive function, granting him satisfaction from reflecting the values of the many groups to which he claimed membership (O’Keefe, 2015), groups that, as the Atlantic article suggests, changed as he confronted rejection from one after the other and kept looking for alternative options.
Say that a prejudiced individual possesses the ability to develop sufficient affective empathy for others but refuses to put down the Confederate flag that adorns the front of his porch. He will reject any message that calls the flag a symbol of treason and oppression because, to him, the Confederate flag does not represent that. To him, the flag may not represent the Southern history he claims it does either, because, chances are, he may not even know that history. That does not mean that the flag cannot represent his particular vision of Southern heritage: the city in which he grew up, his childhood memories, his family, and his close friends. In other words, the group to which he belongs. Hence, as with Anglin, his attitude may probably serve a value-expressive function too. The flag may inspire feelings of racial pride as well, but since the concept of race as a group is subjective, his attitude may come as an attempt to enhance his own self-esteem and defend the ingroup from perceived oppression. Some will mock this perception, how can the oppressors feel oppressed? nevertheless, as the Public Policy Polling survey reveals, it exists: 41 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Trump voters believe that whites, among all races, face the most discrimination, versus 8 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Hilary Clinton voters (Jensen, 2017). That the belief seems linked to party sympathy suggests that the presumption of discrimination comes not from being rejected in housing or job applications, but perhaps from an educational system that for decades promoted the myths of northern aggression and slaves as happy servants (Duby, 2005), from narratives that promote an image of the South as “trapped by poverty and disease, illiteracy, political corruption and deep want of ambition” (Cox, 2011, p. 1) or as “a tobacco-spittin’, Bible-thumpin’, gun-totin’ (and worse) backwater” (Leopold, 2012) and perhaps too from the memes we love to share that equate a (non-liberal) white identity with ignorance and hypocrisy. That is, from an imposed sense of humiliation and inferiority that combined with the inability to abandon the social group—and thus to avoid shame—lead to hostility (Sen, 2007).
Recognizing the cause and the function of prejudice does not look to justify it, but to indicate what road to follow to induce change: not a discussion about the meaning of the Confederate symbols that may lead to further disengagement, but one that makes salient the relationship with those for whom these symbols inspire feelings of hopelessness, resentment, and disenchantment, and thus, will lead him to recognize the uselessness of a symbol to express his values if these values are to include everyone he cares for. That is, a message that induces guilt, perhaps, but also empathy, approach, and compassion. Unless the recipients of a persuasive message are motivated enough to scrutinize the merits of its arguments, most attempts to convince them of the offensive nature of the Confederate flag with historical facts will fail, anyway. As The Onion (2017) artfully satirizes, no one will suddenly feel “Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages Of Queer Feminist Theory.” On the other hand, a message that engages the receiver through a peripheral route (Petty, Wheeler, & Tormala, 2012), matching feelings with feelings (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016), using positive affect to shape behavior that would otherwise obey to stereotypes, as the Stereotype Content Model recommends (Cuddy et al., 2007) and that the receiver does not recognize as a threat to his identity (O’Keefe, 2015) may change his attitude.
Dill-Shackleford et al. (2016) mention several specific examples in which dialogue born from direct and continuous interaction led to prejudice reduction. An inspiring example comes too from the story of Daryl Davis, a black man who for the past 30 years has befriended over 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan, inspiring them to give up their robes (Brown, 2017). In his words, “as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves” (Brown 2017).
The task can be daunting. Depending on the receiver’s level of ego-involvement with the matter (the size of the flag could serve as a proxy) reliable attitude change may require a great length of time and patience (O’Keefe, 2015). Nevertheless, proposing a different media diet, a curated one, that allows prejudiced individuals to establish parasocial relationships with the outgroup through media characters can help too.
When a message takes the form of a narrative, it allows the receiver to develop cognitive and emotional empathy with the characters (Green & Brock, 2002; Slater & Rouner, 2002). Dill-Shackleford, Vinney, and Hopper-Losenicky (2016) mention that news presented as narratives can result in “greater empathy, compassion, positive thoughts, and behavioral intentions towards the people described in the stories” (p. 6). Since narratives allow to observe characters in vulnerable situations and follow a script intended to provoke a specific perception, they often allow for a clearer understanding of a character’s undertake than casual real-life interaction (Sanders, 2010). Moreover, the persuasive power of narrative transportation is such that it can weaken entrenched positions. In an experiment that measured the effect of narrative transportation in reducing counterarguing, Igartua and Berrios (2012) found that, after watching the film Camino, which conveys negative beliefs about the Opus Dei, a group of Spanish students presented a small yet significant change of attitudes toward the religious group and religion, being more likely to agree with statements such as “religion is an obstacle to living a full life” (p. 525) than those in the treatment group, who watched a different movie. The persuasive effect of transportation was greater for those students in the control group who identified as being “on the left” yet still significant for those who identified as being “on the right” (Igartua & Berrios, 2012). Thus, a nicely wrapped copy of Hidden Figures (Melfi, 2016) or recommending a show like Chewing Gum (Coel, 2015) could lead a prejudiced individual to rethink his attitude and achieve what confrontation could not.
Research suggests how the positive use of exemplars and prototypes in media can reduce prejudice (Mastro, 2015; Ramasubramanian, 2015). For instance, in a study that assessed the effect that exposure to gay characters on TV had on the endorsement of gay equality, Bond and Compton (2015) found not only a positive relationship between both but also that, even in the absence of interpersonal relationships with gay persons in real life, those that had developed parasocial relationships with gay characters on TV presented as strong an association with the endorsement of gay equality as those who did have meaningful interactions with gay persons. The effect may be stronger when the portrayals adhere to some preexisting cognitions. Mastro and Tukachinsky (2011) ran a study that assigned 74 white participants to one of either three conditions: groups one and two read fictitious news stories, either about a sitcom similar to Everybody Loves Raymond with an all-Latino cast, or about a sitcom similar to Friends also with an all-Latino cast, while the third group did not read a story. Mastro and Tukachinsky (2011) found that participants who read the news story about the sitcom similar to Everybody Loves Raymond, which aligned to a common stereotypes of Latinos as being close to their families, showed an improved assessment of Latinos than those who read the news story about the other sitcom or those in the control group.
Research also suggests that a higher sensation of presence can help reduce prejudice by increasing empathy for the other. Peck, Seinfeld, Aglioti, and Slater’s (2013) measured the implicit racial biases in a group of white Spanish students before and after having a virtual reality experience using either a light, dark or purple skin avatar. The students under the dark-skin avatar condition presented higher differences between the pre and post tests than the others participants, suggesting that the virtual reality experience helped reduce their implicit biases.
Additionally, the use of prototypes in narratives can allow receivers to embrace a superordinate identity shared with the characters with which they identify while retaining a subgroup identity. For instance, a study that tested the effect of different models of extended contact on reducing British children’s prejudice toward refugees (Cameron, Rutland, Brown & Douch, 2006) found that making salient in a story both a superordinate identity—attending the same school as the participants—and membership to different subgroups—as British or refugees—significantly improved outgroup attitude, and more so than decategorization or common identity interventions.
In summary, I propose that to bring real attitudinal change we should stop equating group membership to prejudice because these propositions may backfire. Instead, I propose crafting messages aiming to strengthen relationships with members of the outgroup through increased exposure and the use of narratives, and in a manner that does not conflict with an individual’s concept of group identity. This will allow for the development of positive affect that with time (and patience) may render existing behavioral schemas ineffective and lead to identification with a larger ingroup. As the story of Daryl Davis suggests, change is possible, but it requires a willingness to change one’s entrenched attitude first.
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