Researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough recently submitted an article to the journal Psychological Science 1 showing how, basically, telling people not to be prejudiced backfires on us and actually increases prejudice in those told.
Based heavily on self-determination theory 2, Legault et al proposed that the most effective method of reducing prejudice was to cultivate internal motivations rather than external ones. They showed this through two experiments. In the first, participants were given one of three brochures, a brochure explaining the virtue of personal value of non-prejudice, a brochure telling them to conform to social norms of non-prejudice, and a no brochure group where participants were simply informed of what prejudice is. These groups were then given a test to assess their external or internal motivation. In the second experiment, participants were assessed based on the Implicit Associations Test 3 4. Their results, not surprisingly, confirm that when we tell people what to feel, they do the exact opposite.
How does this relate to us, you may ask? In the atheist movement, some of our most prominent people are in the confrontation camp (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, P.Z., and J.T. Eberhard, to name a few), and our most prominent messages are ones of confrontation (i.e., “you KNOW it’s a myth”). Further, in a more recent example, Rebecca Watson had the good sense to tell a large group of atheists that women should not be objectified, and a multitude of people are acting in the exact opposite of that message 5. Psychologists and political scientists have shown how confirmation bias and the backfire effect 6 7 constantly affect our ability to reason with the other side of the argument.
In other words, telling people how to feel doesn’t work, but linking the stance to personal value just damn well might. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for calling someone on their bullshit when they spit egregious facts in my face, but when trying to convince someone that their actions are wrong, telling them outright may not be the answer. Obviously, in any situation where you feel in danger, you don’t have the time to explain in detail how the other person could benefit by not acting like an asshat. However, when we’re in front of a large group of people to give a talk on whatever topic of interest, we might do better to look for more intrinsic motivators in our calls for action.
- Legault, L., Gutsell, J. M., & Inzlicht, M. (2011, June). Ironic Effects of Anti-Prejudice Messages: How Motivational Interventions Can Reduce (but also increase) Prejudice. Under Review. Retrieved July 11, 2011, from http://www.michaelinzlicht.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/06/Legault-Inzlicht-Gutsell-in-press.pdf ↩
- Self-determination theory at the University of Rochester: http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/ ↩
- explanation of and examples of the IAT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_Association_Test ↩
- Take a sample IAT: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/ ↩
- see my previous post ↩
- describes how, when confronted with evidence which conflicts our beliefs, those beliefs become stronger ↩
- Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330. doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2 ↩