A new study suggests that white people are likely to reflect on their racist or sexist statements and avoid making future mistakes after they are confronted with their prejudice.

The findings, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, show that when white men and women were confronted after expressing a bias about African Americans, Latinos or women, they sought to identify and regulate their own biases regarding multiple groups of people.

“Many people are reluctant to confront instances of bias because they worry about backlash from others,” said Kimberly Chaney, a doctoral graduate student in social psychology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences.

“But we found that confronting prejudice can be a powerful way to reduce not just one but multiple types of prejudice. We all have the ability to make a change and sometimes speaking out against small instances of bias may make a big change.”

In the first experiment, a group of 161 white college students looked at images of white and Black people accompanied with descriptive sentences. Then they were asked to draw inferences about the people pictured. Three photos of black men included sentences intended to evoke a stereotypical response, such as “This man spends a lot of time behind bars.” The task could draw the stereotypical response of “This man is a criminal” or a neutral response like “bartender,” the researchers said.

Half of the participants were then randomly assigned to be verbally confronted for using a negative stereotype in their response. They then completed a similar task with different faces and sentences, including ones with women that could elicit stereotypical responses.

For example, responses such as “This person works at a hospital” could elicit a stereotypical response of “nurse” instead of “doctor.” Participants who were confronted for using a negative black stereotype used significantly fewer stereotypes about women than participants who were not confronted for using a negative black stereotype.

In another experiment, the researchers looked at whether confrontation for using a stereotype about women reduces expressions of bias toward ethnic and racial minorities.

Each white adult male participant believed he was interacting with another white adult male online to discuss moral dilemmas. One scenario involved a nurse who discovered an issue at a hospital and was asked to discuss with their partner what the nurse should do. Half of the participants who referred to the nurse as “she” during the online discussion were confronted by their online partner.

Those participants were later asked to finish a task that could elicit negative stereotypes about blacks and Latinx Americans. Participants who were confronted for using a negative stereotype about women used significantly fewer stereotypes about Black and Latinx Americans than participants who were not confronted for using a negative stereotype about women.

“There is still a lot more to understand about confronting prejudice, including how it should be done, what you should say and when it will be most effective,” said study co-author Dr. Diana Sanchez, a professor of psychology.

“Confronting someone is challenging, but we hope that knowing that it can be effective might make people more willing to step up.”

Source: Rutgers University