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Anti-Prejudice Campaigns Can Backfire

They may have reverse effect of what they intend, U of T Scarborough psychologists find

December 20, 2011

Campaigns intended to fight racial prejudice may do more harm than good if they try to pressure people into changing their attitudes, according to researchers at University of Toronto Scarborough.

According to the study, people who feel pressured into changing prejudiced views will actually become more prejudiced. On the other hand, methods that persuade people that giving up prejudice is good for its own sake are more effective.

Lisa Legault, Jennifer N. Gutsell and Michael Inzlicht of UTSC came to those conclusions in an upcoming paper in Psychological Science.

They were interested the effectiveness of campaigns such as the government of Canada’s “Racism. Stop It!” campaign – with its talk of “stamping out” prejudice. Across North America billions of dollars are spent every year on prejudice intervention, many with a similar design.

Previous research has shown that people who are driven by their own judgments that prejudice is wrong are the most effective at changing prejudiced attitudes. But people who are pressured into changing their attitudes – because they are threatened with social disapproval, for instance – don’t change as much.

Researchers say that the first group is autonomously motivated, while the second group experience controlled motivation – that is, they feel controlled by outside pressure.

Previous studies looked at people’s existing attitudes. The UTSC researchers were interested in interventions. What happens when you try to change people’s attitudes using persuasion vs. pressure? To find out they tried two experiments.

In the first, the team took 103 non-black undergraduates and divided them into three groups. The first received an “autonomy brochure” that emphasized choice and explained why prejudice reduction was worthwhile. The second “controlling brochure” urged people to combat prejudice and comply with social norms. The third group received no brochure, but merely read definitions of prejudice.

The three groups were then given a test that measured their levels of prejudice (for instance, asking if they agreed that blacks simply need to work harder). The people who received the autonomy brochure ranked lowest in prejudice. The people who received no brochure were in the middle. And the people who received the controlling brochure were the most prejudiced. In other words, the controlling brochure actually made attitudes worse than no brochure at all.

The second experiment was similar, but sought to “prime” subjects by having them read statements that would affect their attitudes. Autonomy-primed students read statements like, “I enjoy relating to people of different groups,” and “It’s fun to meet people from other cultures.” The controlling primed subjects read things like “It is socially unacceptable to discriminate based on cultural background,” and “Prejudiced people are not well liked.”

Once again, the autonomous group scored lowest in prejudice, the group which received no priming scored in the middle, and the controlled group was most prejudiced.

According to the researchers, people who feel they are being controlled sense a threat to their autonomy and rebel, reacting by adopting even more prejudiced attitudes.

The researchers suggest that anti-prejudice campaigns should focus on discussing the importance and enjoyment of non-prejudice, and should reframe campaigns that pressure people and could backfire.


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