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Prejudices can be Lessened by Focusing on Social Context

WASHINGTON -- People have prejudices toward others that they are sometimes unaware of and therefore cannot easily control or change. It doesn't have to be this way, according to social psychologists who examine the plasticity of attitudes. A new study finds that automatic or nonconscious negative attitudes (prejudices) can be altered more easily by changing the social environment that people inhabit instead of relying on the prejudiced person to be motivated to change their internal beliefs. Specifically, when people repeatedly see images of admired individuals from stigmatized groups and disliked individuals from esteemed groups their nonconscious attitudes toward those groups are affected. This article, appearing in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA) demonstrated in two experiments that nonconscious attitudes toward historically stigmatized groups such as African Americans and the elderly can be changed.

Two experiments conducted by psychologists Nilanjana Dasgupta, Ph.D., of the New School University and Anthony G. Greenwald, Ph.D., of the University of Washington examined how exposure to positive images of stigmatized groups can alter a person's opinion about the group. An example would be that repeatedly showing people images of famous members of a stigmatized group (admired African Americans like Tiger Woods or Martin Luther King) or infamous members of a valued group (disliked White Americans like Timothy McVeigh or serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer) affect those with prejudiced attitudes.

In the first experiment, 48 participants were exposed to pictures and biographical descriptions of admired Black and disliked White individuals or disliked Black and admired White individuals. Those in the control condition were exposed to pictures and descriptions of flowers and insects. After viewing the pictures, the participants were shown the names without the pictures with instructions to classify them as Black or White (experimental condition) or as flowers or insects (control condition). Finally, participants' nonconscious racial attitudes and conscious racial attitudes about White and Black Americans were measured. Participants who had been repeatedly exposed to images of famous African Americans and infamous disliked White Americans showed substantially less nonconscious racial bias for at least 24 hours than those in the control and the pro-White conditions.

The second experiment examined whether people's nonconscious preference for youth and prejudice against the elderly can be changed using the same strategy as the first experiment. Twenty-six participants completed a general knowledge test in which they were either shown pictures and descriptions of admired elderly and disliked young individuals (Mother Teresa, Tonya Harding), or disliked elderly and admired young individuals (Bob Packwood, Ben Affleck). The authors found that participants who had seen pro-elderly images showed significantly less nonconscious ageism than those who had seen pro-young images.

Both these experiments suggest that preconceived or nonconscious group biases may be changed at least temporarily with interventions that focus on changing the social environment by highlighting admired members of stereotyped groups. "This type of intervention may over time make these admired group members come to mind more easily and override preexisting biases," said the authors.

"These findings are hopeful because they question the assumption that nonconscious racial attitudes are immutable because of their long socialization history," said Dr. Dasgupta. "We think this bias-reducing strategy can be extended beyond race and age and applied to a variety of other groups that are often the target of prejudice, including Arabs, Muslims, non-Americans, gays and lesbians, etc. If we can change these nonconscious prejudices for a short period by changing the type of images people see in their social environment, perhaps we can then attempt to produce more enduring changes in the future."

Article: "On the Malleability of Automatic Attitudes: Combating Automatic Prejudice With Images of Admired and Disliked Individuals," Nilanjana Dasgupta, New School University and Anthony G. Greenwald, University of Washington; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 81, No. 5.

Full text of the article is available at http://www.apa.org/journals/psp/press_releases/november_2001/psp815800.html

---American Psychological Association

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