How research in psychology can help fight prejudice against stigmatized groups

To avoid feeling so hideously unproductive when I waste my time on the internet, I subscribe to a few psychology journals in my Google Reader feed. I try to skim through them every so often, at the very least scanning the abstracts to get a sense of what’s going on outside of my little research niche.

Reading through the other day, I found a really cool study in Psychological Science by University of Kent psychologists, Michele D. Birtel and Richard J. Crisp. There’s been a lot of research in recent years looking into how prejudice can be reduced, including a project I’m currently working on in my own lab exploring how we dehumanize the homeless and how this effect can be curbed. A lot of the work on reducing prejudice against stigmatized groups involves a positive interaction or relationship, real or imagined, with a member of the stigmatized group. Chris wrote last year that a “2010 Gallup poll demonstrated something the LGBTQ community has recognized for some time: people are significantly more inclined to oppose gay marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay.” He went on:

The disconnect is clear-when only 37 percent of Americans know a Muslim American, and 55 percent claim to know very little or nothing about Islam, the negative stereotypes about the Muslim community go unchallenged. The same logic can be extended to atheists-the fewer relationships we have with people of faith, the worse our image will be.

So we know building relationships and encouraging positive interactions with stigmatized groups is important, but this paper by Birtel and Crisp connects research on intergroup prejudice to research on treating anxiety disorders. The authors look specifically at the mentally ill, gay men, and British Muslims–groups often treated with fear or disgust. Martha Nussbaum touches on how prejudice against Muslims is rooted in anxiety and fear in her great book, The New Religious Intolerance (which I’ve been meaning to write about for a while). I’m glad to see some research validate the idea that prejudice against such groups is rooted in fear and can be treated as such.

The paper shows this connection in an interesting way–you can improve feelings towards stigmatized groups by actually imagining negative interactions with them, so long as it’s followed by imagining a positive interaction. Counter-intuitively this is more productive in reducing prejudice than just imaging two positive interactions. To the experimentally minded who might be concerned that this result might simply reflect a contrast effect, the authors found that the shift in attitude was specific to prejudiced groups. There was no similar decrease in anxiety when straight men were asked to imagine one negative then one positive interaction with another straight man, rather than simply two positive interactions.

In psychotherapy, methods like this are a common way to treat fear disorders–the fear response is activated then replaced with a new, positive, response. That is to say, for someone with agoraphobia, imagining a nice time going out into public will do a lot more to change the underlying fear response when that fear was recently present. It seems like prejudiced against certain groups might be effectively treated in the same way. If we confront and engage in stereotypes about stigmatized groups, then think about those groups in a positive way, those stereotypes might slowly be replaced.

It’s certainly an idea worth trying to put into practice.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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