You’ve probably seen the ads, a Latino family sitting around the dinner table, a black father playing in the park with his son. They are meant to be comforting.
Voters see these types of messages everywhere during election season.
Conventional wisdom tells us that humanizing marginalized groups can change mindsets and influence people when it comes to issues like immigration. A new study from Brigham Young University, however, challenges this common belief. He finds that these types of media messages do not really fight prejudice.
Researchers showed video clips and images that humanized Latino immigrants to more than 5,000 study participants in the western United States
The results, published in the Journal of Politics, show that these posts simply reinforce what viewers already think of this group – whether positive or negative.
Participants who already harbored animosity were not influenced at all, while participants who were already empathetic were more so after participating.
Josh Gublerassociate professor of political science at BYU and one of the study’s authors, told KUER Pamela McCall he was surprised at how ineffective the messages were in changing people’s hearts and minds.
“We know that the images, documentaries and other material that we used in the study – we know that they humanized an outgroup that at least some of our participants viewed as less than human. He was surprising how little empathy was generated. We expected it to be less, but not as little as we ended up finding.
The researchers expected at least some change in attitude.
“But among those who started out with the most negative outgroup perceptions in our study, we really don’t find any movement.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pamela McCall: One of the key theories in this study was dissonance. What is dissonance and how does it shape human behavior?
Gubler: Dissonance is often an unconscious feeling of unease – discomfort – that a particular component of our lived experience and our inferences from it are not correct. In this particular case, I may have constructed my sense of myself in relation to another group of people that dehumanizes that group of people. A set of stereotypes, for example. If I receive convincing evidence that it is false, it calls into question not only this information, but also my sense of myself, because I acted on it. I treated people a certain way.
McCall: What was the effect on people who were already empathetic to these groups?
Gubler: If you were already empathetic to begin with, we found this nice “join the base/preach to the choir” effect. You know, people showed even more empathy. They liked the outgroup to begin with, they showed even more.
McCall: How do you explain that? How it works?
Gubler: Well, that’s a confirmation of your lived experience. Confirmation of self-goodness. If I’ve had pleasant experiences with a group of people and see them represented in a way that aligns with that set of experiences, it evokes the pleasant feelings I had in the past. And so, in a self-report measure of empathy, after this experience, I actually increase. I feel good.
McCall: If political messages don’t change people’s minds, what good are they?
Gubler: I think if you’re a politician, you often have an interest in rallying the base, because a rallying base is often ready to come out and vote. But this study casts doubt on attempts to change mentalities. There are ways, potentially, to create much more effective ads. But the standard approach, the intuitive benchmark approach that’s most often used by both politicians and activists – here we find evidence, and it’s consistent evidence with other studies that we have do, this approach is often much less effective than we think.
McCall: If empathy can’t change hearts and minds, what can?
Gubler: I think the main takeaway here is not that empathy can’t at least change hearts, but that empathy coupled with dissonance doesn’t. So if I can get people to link a certain group to a set of experiences in their own lives that generate real empathy, that evoke pleasant memories and associations, that I think have the power to change both hearts and minds. The trick is to do this without creating this feeling of unease and discomfort at the same time because what we are showing here is that dissonance is disturbing.