Media messages that humanize outgroups don’t fight prejudice, new BYU research finds

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Political ads depicting “outsiders” with relatable experiences, such as images of immigrants having Thanksgiving dinner or videos of refugees hugging their children, do next to nothing, according to new research from BYU. increase empathy in people with high animosity toward an outgroup.

It seems intuitive: if you want to soften hearts towards marginalized people, show that they are human like everyone else. That’s the theory behind the untold media posts depicting “outgroups” with relatable experiences, such as images of immigrants having Thanksgiving dinner or videos of refugees hugging their children.

Unfortunately, humanizing messages do next to nothing to increase empathy in people with strong animosity toward an outgroup, although they do increase empathy in those who already view the group positively, new BYU research finds. political science professors Joshua Gubler, Chris Karpowitz, Quin Monson, and David Romney. The study was published in the Policy review.

“Humanizing messages have been the main approach of activists to reduce bias around the world, in conflict resolution groups, documentaries and refugee organizations,” said Joshua Gubler, professor of political science at BYU. “People think they’re effective, but that’s because they preach to the choir, and the choir responds appropriately. There is value in rallying a base, but it is different in changing the minds of those whom the messages are intended to target.

For the study, researchers first polled 3,498 Republicans in the western United States about their attitudes toward Latinx immigrants, then polled their attitudes again after watching clips from a documentary designed to highlight a face on immigrants. After watching the documentary, all participants were more likely to view immigrants as human, but only those who were previously sympathetic toward immigrants became more empathetic.

The researchers hypothesized that dissonance — the unpleasant emotion of realizing that a belief that has shaped our worldview is potentially incorrect — prevents people who are ill-disposed toward immigrants from empathizing.

“Dissonance challenges our sense of self, and most people are loath to pay the price for confronting it. We wondered if, once convinced by the documentary that immigrants were human beings and not mere stereotypes, some participants became uncomfortable and their discomfort negated the empathy they might otherwise have developed,” Gubler said.

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“There is value in rallying a base, but it is different in changing the minds of those whom the messages are intended to target.”

Joshua Gubler, professor of political science at BYU

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To test their hypothesis, the team designed a second phase of the experiment with 1,982 participants. This time, after showing heartwarming images of Latinx people and confirming that the photos had a humanizing effect, they told half of their participants that the immigrants were documented and the other half that they were undocumented. They then asked all participants to affirm in writing that they agreed with a list of statements describing the positive attributes of immigrants.

Compared to those with low initial animosity toward immigrants, participants with high initial animosity were about three times more likely to report dissonant emotions after this task and significantly less likely to report empathy. Dissonance accounted for 23% of their lower empathy levels.

“Dissonance was a significant predictor of unchanged attitudes,” Gubler said. “Traditional thinking is that you move from humanizing to empathy to change your attitude – this study suggests why many attempts fail.”

So if humanization doesn’t work to reduce bias, what does? Answering that “million dollar question” is the research team’s next goal, Gubler said. He described two possible approaches they are exploring to manage dissonance in conflict resolution.

One option is to avoid generating dissonance altogether by asking people to reflect and write about positive encounters they have had with outgroups, even if they can only think of one or two good things to say. . “Since it’s their own experience and already woven into their psyche, they’re unlikely to have the dissonant backlash,” Gubler explained.

The other potential strategy is to tell people upfront that they are likely to feel dissonance, normalize the discomfort, and encourage them to overcome it rather than avoid it.

“People are often oblivious to how dissonance affects them, how it can block empathy,” he said. “When we make it conscious for people, it allows us to discuss dissonance as a learning opportunity.”

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