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The top 10 strategies for reducing prejudice (part 2 of 3)

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | December 24, 2010

(cross-posted from Psychology Today)

In my previous blog entry, I outlined strategies 10 through 8 for reducing prejudice and improving intergroup relations. Those strategies were united by a common denominator: to get you in the mindset of introspection and self-reflection needed to address our sometimes hidden biases.

Strategies 7 through 5 are linked to movies you can watch so as to help you remember the strategies better. And what are the holidays without snuggling up on the couch with popcorn and good movie?

Without further ado:

7: Laugh a little

My recent book with Marsh and Smith, Are We Born Racist?, highlights some recent advances in the neuroscience of prejudice. Research summarized in the book suggests that when we see members of groups that we don’t consider our own, an almond-shape structure called the amygdala lights up. The amygdala is an early (evolutionarily, relative to other parts of the brain) structure that activates our “fight-or-flight” response, and indicates a threat response that stems, literally, from our very core. This type of brain finding is often misinterpreted as our prejudices being hard-wired– if brain regions light up when we look at pictures of outgroups, then we must be born racist.

But a fantastic essay by Kareem Johnson in this volume itself speaks volumes about the plasticity of our biology. Johnson describes a study he conducted in which he showed people faces of Black and White people, and later asked them to recall whether they had seen that face or not. He found that White participants made many more errors for the Black than the White participants, and vice-versa. He thus replicated the famous “outgroup homogeneity effect,” where members of outgroups look a lot more like one another than members of our ingroups. This is a precursor to the thought, “those people are all the same” that sure smells like it’s biologically rooted.  However, for some of the participants, Johnson had them watch  a short video clip to make them feel joyful before they undertook the categorization task. The finding? The own-race bias disappeared, and people were no worse at recalling White versus Black faces. Psychologist Tiffany Ito found that when she induced participants to simply smile while looking at a set of Black and White faces (Ito had them do this by having people hold a pencil in their mouth– try it!), they showed less implicit bias on a subsequent test of racial attitudes.

So rent a copy of “Elf” (my favorite holiday movie) this holiday season, and next time you’re deep in thought, release that furrowed brow and hold a pencil to your mouth.

6. Find some mean zombies

My wife and son are hooked– nay, positively addicted– to Plants versus Zombies. My heart melts when they play together: the way she scaffolds the game for him, helps him with strategy, and speaks to him like an equal mind and partner in the game is beautiful to watch (look here for why playing video games doesn’t have to spell doom for children’s development, particularly when it’s used as a teaching or closeness tool). It’s really them (and the plants) versus the zombies. And herein lies a secret to intergroup relations.

Research by Sam Gaertner and colleagues on the “Common Ingroup Identity Model” shows that when we are able to recategorize other people according to features or characteristics that we share, we are more likely to see them as part of “us,” and are therefore less likely to show outgroup prejudice towards them. The research is clever in that, instead of addressing prejudice by trying to get people not to categorize others into ingroups vs. outgroups, it instead attempts to encourage the process where other groups are seen as part of the ingroup. I’ll never forget the days after September 11, 2001 in New York City, in which New Yorkers of all races and creeds were united by the terrible events of the day. Everyone felt like a New Yorker– people opened doors for each other, ceded disputed taxis to one another, and smiled at each other on the streets with zero regard to background. It happens at sporting events too– people are united by a superordinate identity, and the other differences melt away. The upshot here? The way you categorize others (“us” vs. “them”) is more malleable than we imagine, and really highlights one way in which race, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, or ethnicity are social constructions.

So rent a copy of “Independence Day” — where you’ll find yourself primed with the ultimate inclusive superordinate category (humans). Fortunately, you don’t need extraterrestrials or zombies to achieve a common ingroup identity– all you need is a little compassion and flexibility of thought.

5. Do your part to save the planet

One of the classic studies in social psychology was conducted by Muzafer Sharif, and was called “The Robbers’ Cave Experiment.” In this real-world study, Sharif studied the intergroup attitudes of boys in a summer camp setting. The boys were grouped into the Scouts and the Eagles, and from #6 above you can guess what this categorization did for intergroup relations. When Sharif manipulated the setting so that they boys were in direct competition to one another (e.g., when medals or prizes were at stake), Sharif found dramatic shifts in the attitudes of the boys towards the other team, a reduced likelihood of having friends in the other team, and an increase in aggressive behavior towards the outgroup (e.g., putting their underwear in the freezer. Ah, boys.) By contrast, when the boys all had to work together to fix the camp’s water supply (common goals, anyone?), Sharif was able to shift, quite dramatically, intergroup attitudes, the amount of time scouts and eagles spent time together during free time, and the development of best friends across boundary lines.

In addition to reaffirming the Common Ingroup Identity Model (see #6 above), Sharif’s classic study is a reminder that when resources are scarce, people are more inclined to decide how to divvy up these resources according to– yes– socially constructed categories. This “we get the goods, they don’t” mentality is sometimes referred to as “Realistic Conflict Theory,” and it has a powerful effect on our behavior because we then use negative stereotypes to justify the negative behavior itself.

So pick up a copy of “An Inconvenient Truth”— and do your part to make sure that we continue to have enough resources for the human race to go around. Oh– and don’t get sidetracked by doomsday warnings on climate change. Do what you can to promote the health of Mother Earth.

Have a safe and joyful holiday; join me on twitter or facebook.