Often when someone in our family or social circle says something bigoted, our inclination is to ignore it.
But that could be a mistake, according to a new study.
Rutgers University-New Brunswick researchers Kimberly Chaney and Diana Sanchez found that when people are confronted about making bigoted statements, they feel bad and consciously try to avoid repeating those statements.
“We found that participants who were confronted felt bad about their behavior, ruminated more, showed an enduring prejudice reduction,” said Sanchez, an associate professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences. “And we didn’t just look at their immediate response, but looked at them a week later.”
The researchers recruited two groups of university students, each numbering about 100. All the students self-identified as white.
The researchers showed them a series of images, each paired with a sentence. The participants were asked to draw an inference from the picture and sentence.
For instance, they might be shown a photo of an African-American man, paired with the sentence: “This man spends a lot of time behind bars.” The researchers were hoping to draw a bigoted or stereotypical response: This man is a criminal.
Randomly, the researchers either let the responses go unremarked upon or said, “Gee, that’s kind of stereotypical, don’t you think? I mean, this guy might be a bartender.”
A week after the initial test, the same people were called back and showed a different set of faces and sentences. Those who had been confronted earlier were asked if they had thought about their previous responses and stereotyping. They had, according to the researchers. Most of those people were markedly less stereotypical the second time around, the researchers found.
A second group of students went through the same process, and then underwent follow-up examinations online, with researchers adding words designed to elicit a stereotypical response.
This group also filled out an online questionnaire probing how much they had thought about their initial experience and how it made them feel.
Again, the researchers found the second group much less likely to stereotype than they had been originally.
The researchers note that their study shows “the effects of intrapersonal confrontation endure.”
“I think this is important because we need to understand what reduces prejudice,” Sanchez said. “Confronting people is hard, and unless people know it will be effective, they won’t do it.”
The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.