According to a research article in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, global organizations and programs set up in the hopes of urging people to end prejudice may actually increase prejudices.
In particular, researchers found that telling people how to think – in this case, telling people to not be prejudiced, rather than allowing them the opportunity to determine their own values – is an approach that often boomerangs.
Canadian investigators were interested in exploring how the everyday environment influences people’s motivation toward prejudice reduction. They designed a study consisting of two experiments which looked at the effect of two different types of motivational intervention – a controlled form (telling people what they should do) and a more personal form (explaining why being non-prejudiced is enjoyable and personally valuable).
In experiment one, participants were randomly assigned one of two brochures to read: an autonomy brochure or a controlling brochure. These brochures discussed a new campus initiative to reduce prejudice.
A third group was offered no motivational instructions to reduce prejudice. The authors found that, ironically, those who read the controlling brochure later demonstrated more prejudice than those who had not been urged to reduce prejudice.
Those who read the brochure designed to support personal motivation showed less prejudice than those in the other two groups.
In experiment two, participants were randomly assigned a questionnaire, designed to stimulate personal or controlling motivation to reduce prejudice.
The authors found that those who were exposed to controlling messages regarding prejudice reduction showed significantly more prejudice than those who did not receive any controlling cues.
The authors suggest that when interventions eliminate people’s freedom to value diversity on their own terms, they may actually be creating hostility toward the targets of prejudice.
According to co-author Lisa Legault, Ph.D., “Controlling prejudice reduction practices are tempting because they are quick and easy to implement. They tell people how they should think and behave and stress the negative consequences of failing to think and behave in desirable ways.”
Legault continues, “But people need to feel that they are freely choosing to be nonprejudiced, rather than having it forced upon them.”
Legault stresses the need to focus less on the requirement to reduce prejudices and start focusing more on the reasons why diversity and equality are important and beneficial to both majority and minority group members.