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Anti-prejudice programs may backfire

July 7, 2011
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Educa­t­ional pro­grams de­signed to per­suade peo­ple to be un­pre­ju­diced may of­ten back­fire and ac­tu­ally stoke ra­cial hos­til­ity, a study has found. Its au­thors are ad­vo­cat­ing a more pos­i­tive ap­proach in which ed­u­ca­tors stress the ben­e­fits of tol­er­ance rath­er than mor­al­iz­ing or threat­en­ing.

“Peo­ple need to feel that they are freely choos­ing to be non­pre­j­u­diced, rath­er than hav­ing it forced up­on them,” said Li­sa Le­gault of the Uni­vers­ity of To­ron­to Scar­borough, co-author of a re­port on the find­ings to ap­pear in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Or­gan­iz­a­tions and pro­grams have been set up world­wide in the hopes of urg­ing peo­ple to end rac­ism and prej­u­dice. Le­gault and col­leagues con­ducted two ex­pe­ri­ments which looked at the ef­fect of two types of mo­tiva­t­ional in­ter­ven­tion: a “con­trolled” form of tell­ing peo­ple what they should do, and a more “per­son­al” form ex­plain­ing why be­ing non-prej­u­diced is en­joy­a­ble and per­son­ally val­u­a­ble.

In the first ex­pe­ri­ment, col­lege stu­dents were ran­domly as­signed to read one of two bro­chures about a new in­i­ti­a­tive to re­duce prej­u­dice. The first, de­signed to take a gen­tler ap­proach, de­clares that “so­cial jus­tice is the vi­tal in­gre­di­ent in a free, fair, and peace­ful so­ci­ety.” The harsher sec­ond bro­chure notes that the law “pro­hibits dis­crimina­t­ion in em­ploy­ment” and that “teach­ers and stu­dents dis­play­ing rac­ist at­ti­tudes and be­hav­ior can face se­ri­ous con­se­quences.” A third group of stu­dent par­ti­ci­pants was of­fered no mo­tiva­t­ional in­struc­tions to re­duce prej­u­dice. 

The au­thors found that 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 the second ex­pe­ri­ment, 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.

“Con­trolling prej­u­dice re­duc­tion prac­tices are tempt­ing be­cause they are quick and easy to im­ple­men­t,” Le­gault said. “They tell peo­ple how they should think and be­have and stress the neg­a­tive con­se­quenc­es of fail­ing to think and be­have in de­sir­a­ble ways.” But it may not work, she warned.


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Educational programs designed to persuade people to be less prejudiced may often backfire and actually stoke racial hostility, a study has found. Its authors are advocating a more positive approach in which educators stress the benefits of tolerance rather than moralizing or threatening. “People need to feel that they are freely choosing to be nonprejudiced, rather than having it forced upon them,” said Lisa Legault of the University of Toronto Scarborough, co-author of a report on the findings to appear in the journal Psychological Science. Organizations and programs have been set up worldwide in the hopes of urging people to end racism and prejudice. Legault and colleagues conducted two experiments which looked at the effect of two different types of motivational intervention: a “controlled” form of telling people what they should do, and a more “personal” form explaining why being non-prejudiced is enjoyable and personally valuable. In the first experiment, college students were randomly assigned to read one of two brochures about a new initiative to reduce prejudice. The first, designed to take a gentler approach, declares that “social justice is the vital ingredient in a free, fair, and peaceful society.” The harsher second brochure notes that the law “prohibits discrimination in employment” and that “teachers and students displaying racist attitudes and behavior can face serious consequences.” A third group of student participants was offered no motivational instructions to reduce prejudice. The authors found that 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. “Controlling prejudice reduction practices are tempting because they are quick and easy to implement,” Legault said. “They tell people how they should think and behave and stress the negative consequences of failing to think and behave in desirable ways.” But it may not work, she warned. Legault stressed 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.