Not everyone confronts someone who makes a racial or prejudicial remark.
A recently released study sheds light onto why people are more likely to speak up in some circumstances, but not in others.
Aneeta Rattan, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who co-wrote the study with her advisor, Carol S. Dweck, found that people who are targets of a prejudicial comment are more likely to speak up if they believe their words might be able to change the other person’s personality.
Despite the possible costs, confronting prejudice can have important benefits, ranging from the well-being of the target of prejudice to social change. However, some individuals are more likely to speak out against prejudice, and targets of biased statements are more likely to confront the speaker in certain circumstances than others. Some areas of law are based on a belief that people who are the objects of bias should speak up.
Per Rattan, “In the law, speaking up in the moment is very important in terms of whether people can bring lawsuits and the strength of their claims, especially in sexual harassment law,” she says.
Rattan and her colleagues theorized that individuals who were targeted by prejudice were more likely to confront it if they held the belief that people’s personalities were changeable rather than fixed.
The researchers conducted a three-part study to address this hypothesis. All of the study participants were students, and either ethnic minorities or women. After assessing whether the subjects were likely to believe that people’s behaviors and attitudes could be changed, they participated in a chat room discussion about diversity in college admissions. One of the researchers also participated in the chat room anonymously and made a biased comment.
The study participants who held the belief that personalities are malleable were four times more likely to confront the disguised researcher about the biased comment.
In addition, the participants who believed personalities could change reported they would be “more likely to confront prejudice, and less likely to withdraw from future interactions with an individual who expressed prejudice,” regarding even more severely biased comments.
“Many people think of situations where confronting of prejudice happens as conflict situations,” Rattan said. “But if confronting prejudice is an expression of belief that people can change, to me it suggests that there’s profound hope in that act as well.” Other research has found that confronting people with biased views in a direct, educational way can help them learn not to behave in a prejudiced way.
Per Rattan, this study suggests that people may have many reasons for not speaking up when they’re the target of bias, including their own beliefs about personality. “Maybe our standards should not start with the idea that all people want to speak up—it may depend upon their beliefs about personality,” she says.
By highlighting the central role that individual beliefs regarding personality play in targets’ motivation to confront prejudice, this research has important implications for intergroup relations and social change.
Rattan’s research is published in the July issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.