Category Archives: Culture and Diversity

Reshaping reality by reshaping social perceptions: the power of talk in promoting equality

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

If you have taken an introductory social psychology class, you have probably heard of stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon where making people aware of a stereotype that could refer to the self increases the chance that the stereotype will come true. For example, on math tests where the students’ gender is made salient, women tend to perform worse than men. When the researchers emphasized to participants that gender scores on the test tended to be equal, their scores became equal. The same difference has been found on tests between black and white students; when the students’ race was emphasized, black students’ scores were lower than white students, but when equality was emphasized, the scores were the same.

While there are still competing explanations for why stereotype threat occurs, it is a very well documented phenomenon that can help to explain demographic achievement gaps. Fortunately, there are ways to counter the negative effects of stereotype threat and reduce demographic inequalities. One of the earliest ways discovered is to emphasize the expected positive outcomes on a task for under-achieving groups. While this does work, it is not always practical in real-world situations. An ideal solution would be a brief intervention with long-lasting effects that could work across many different situations. Smith and Postmes (2011) found that allowing small groups to discuss and challenge the validity of the stereotype can also reduce stereotype threat, though the duration of this promising positive effect was not fully known. This suggests groups can use discussion to reinterpret negative group stereotypes in a way that can empower the group and overcome negative effects.

A new study in Science advances our knowledge of the positive potential stereotype threat interventions (Walton & Cohen, 2011). The researchers theorized that stereotype threat occurs in part when people construe feelings of social adversity as an indictment of their social belonging. If social adversity can be portrayed by students themselves as universal to all students but temporary, then the negative effects of stereotype threat might be reduced. In the experiment, black and white first-year college students were subtly encouraged to generate such messages in the hopes that it would have long-lasting positive effects throughout their university career. This is indeed what happened, and the effects were powerful and long-lasting: compared to a control group, black students who received the intervention as freshmen achieved higher grades. Not only were their academic scores better, but they reported better health and they visited the doctor less, too. These effects were mediated by the students’ subjective construal of adversity; this means that feelings of social belonging are likely to be a key part of the process in reducing stereotype threat. Interestingly, students did not attribute these positive effects to the brief intervention they experienced three years earlier. Considering the brevity of the intervention, and the durability of its effects, this appears to be a very powerful tool in reducing demographic achievement gaps. More research is needed to better understand the processes behind and effects of the intervention, but it speaks to the power of social expectations to cripple our accomplishments, and yet also of our power to take steps to consciously reshape the social landscape in a way that leads to real and lasting change for the better. People often lament that we talk too much about problems instead of taking action; in some cases, talking may be one of the best actions we can take.

Smith, L. G. E., & Postmes, T. (2011). Shaping stereotypical behaviour through the discussion of social stereotypes. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 50-74.

Walton, G. M., & Cogen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

Finding a Human In-group in the Wake of a Ravaged Japan

By P. Getty

Much of the research tackling questions regarding our shared human identity seems to focus on the infra-humanization and de-humanization of out-group members (Paladino & Vaes, 2009, for example), or how human norms effect our reactions to victims and perpetrators generally and more specifically in the context of historical atrocities (Greenaway & Louis, 2010). While these research programs are vital to understanding “the human element” of inter-group attitudes, I think they ignore an even more elemental phenomenon that I like to call spontaneous human-in-group affiliation (Getty, in progress). While we are hopelessly bound to humanity, people rarely, if ever, name humanity as a salient in-group. In fact, Lickel, Hamilton and Sherman (2001) studied lay theories of groups and found that the abstraction of group extended only as far as loose affiliations of interests (e.g., Coltrane fans). Not once did they suggest that species-level affiliation was seen as a viable in-group. However, studies of de- and infra-humanization showed that strong identifiers from diverse groups report believing that their in-group posses more human-like qualities than out-group members (Castano & Kafta, 2009). What does this mean? It could be that our species-level affiliation is simply a distant, abstract concept concealed in our allegiances to in-groups, but present nonetheless. The question I’m tackling, then, is, when do we shed our lesser in-group identity and spontaneously identify as “human beings” when being human is not a salient self-categorization?

One clue to answering this question might have been revealed in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes and following tsunami that ravaged much of the northeastern coast of Japan. While there is little to report about the details of the disaster that goes above and beyond the facts already reported in the media, there does seem to be an interesting phenomenon that might be related to my concept of spontaneous human-in-group affiliation. If one were to follow the link below to the Web site discussing the disaster they would find at the bottom a number of posts (one of which is mine) from concerned and empathetic people from around the world. Some of these people come from countries that have had historical conflict with and mistrust of Japan  (China, for example). Even still, for one reason of another, these folks have been compelled to take the time to write and express their concern for the suffering of others who would normally be out-group members, if not for their human ties.  I commented on this observation: “It is amazing how human beings from around the world, despite strong in-group affiliations and histories of conflict with each other, find their humanity in situations of suffering. We find our human in-group and that, I think, is a fragile good that comes from these situations.”

I still have much work to do to answer the question of spontaneous human-in-group affiliation. My own personal good to come from this disaster, however, is a testable hypothesis: Spontaneous human-in-group affiliation occurs in the wake of natural disasters (Getty, now in progress). You will have to wait for the “why” of this hypothesis when the manuscript is done.

In closing, there is little to say other than to express my sincerest empathy for my fellow humans suffering in Japan. I hope those of you who read this, and are able, will join me in following the link below to contribute to the American Red Cross, who is equipped to help those suffering in Japan, or contribute to other charitable organizations that can do the same.

Follow link to donate funds for Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief via the American Red Cross

Follow link to VOA news and comments about the Japanese disaster.

Paladino & Vaes, 2009

Greenway & Louis, 2010

Affirmative action for women in Iraq

Iraqi Minister for the Environment Narmin Othman, at a women’s conference in Ramadi, 29 March 2008. Othman is one of the few women in Iraq who has reached the post of Minister. Photo by: Cpl. Erin A. Kirk

A recent Human Rights Watch report outlines ways in which women’s rights became more limited in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.  According to the report, women had a better place in politics and society during the 1970s than at present.  Similarly, an article in yesterday’s New York Times explains how the current struggle for power in the political arena has curtailed women’s rights despite a 25% quota for women in parliament.  Some people think there should be a quota for women in the ministries as well, while others feel women are not qualified or do not belong in politics.

In social psychology research, the study of attitudes about affirmative action has expanded to include gender inequality.  A survey study conducted by Boechmann and Feather (2007) examined attitudes about affirmative action for women in Australia.  For male participants, they found that unfair male advantage was negatively associated with a belief in women’s entitlement to affirmative action. However, when men’s perceptions of personal responsibility and guilt were entered into the model, unfair male advantage was positively related to women’s entitlement and deservingness.

In Iraq, efforts to secure more basic human rights for women might be advanced not just by pushing for more quotas but also by complimentary efforts to increase civic-mindedness and awareness among men.

Boeckmann, R. J. & Feather, N. T. (2007). Gender, discrimination beliefs, group-based guilt, and responses to affirmative action for Australia women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 290 – 304.

Iraqi women feel shunted despite election quota by Michael S. Schimdt and Yasir Ghazi, published March 12, 2011

At a crossroads: Human rights in Iraq eight years after the US-led invasion, Human Rights Watch, February 2, 2011.  See Section I. Rights of women and girls

Will Libya be the next Egypt and Tunisia?

Libyans in Dublin march in protest against al-Gaddafi

Representatives of the Libyan Community in Ireland handed a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs today urging the Government, the EU and the UN to stand by the people of Libya. Courtesy of William Murphy, 21 February 2011. http://www.flickr.com/photos/80824546@N00/5465577884

Will Colonel Muarrar al-Gaddafi, the authoritarian leader of Libya, be able to maintain power amid the current protests and uprising or will the story of Libya become similar to that of Egypt and Tunisia?

Al-Gaddafi has brutally controlled Libya without impunity for the last 42 years.  He is one of the longest serving leaders of the country, and he has experienced little threat from dissent or protest in the past because of his repressive methods, but the political climate in the region and the country may empower Libyans to challenge the status quo.

According to research by Drury and Reicher (2005) Libyans might be empowered by protest against al-Gaddafi’s government if collective action is understood as an expression of social identity.  Other research by Mannarini, Roccato, Fedi, and Rovere (2009) similarly points to the role of social identity in determining support for protest, as well as the perception of injustice and the perception that a vast majority of people are behind the movement.  Political pressure, not just from within Libya but from the international community, is highlighting the illegitimacy of al-Gaddafi’s rule.  Emboldened social identity of the Libyan people re-framed in the context of the political changes in Egypt and Tunisia may be enough to tip the tides.

To read more:

Libya: Past and future? – al-Jazeera, 24 February 2011

Drury, J. & Reicher, S. (2005). Explaining enduring empowerment: a comparative study of collective action and psychological outcomes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 35–58.

Mannarini, T., Roccato, M., Fedi, A. & Rovere, A. (2009). Six Factors Fostering Protest: Predicting Participation in Locally Unwanted Land Uses Movements. Political Psychology, 30, 895–920.

On the effectiveness of intergroup apologies, part II

Gov. Robert Bentley apologized for discriminatory remarks on Wednesday

By Kevin R. Betts

In late November, I wrote about the effectiveness of apologies for reducing intergroup conflict. Based on research by Blatz and Philpot (2010), I suggested that when certain conditions are met, the power of a simple public apology for improving intergroup attitudes, restoring trust, and promoting forgiveness should not be underestimated. Examining reactions to a recent public apology made by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to non-Christians in the state provides for a nice test of the ideas presented in this prior post.

Let’s start with a little background for those unacquainted with this story. Shortly after being sworn into office last Monday, Alabama’s governor met with supporters at a local church where he said bluntly, “Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” Because not everyone residing in Alabama is Christian, many people wondered whether the new governor would treat all citizens fairly. Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham was among the many people who felt disenfranchised by Gov. Bentley’s words. In a letter to Gov. Bentley, Rabbi Miller wrote, “Our great nation, by law and tradition, provides us with religious freedom. And even though we do not believe exactly alike, we ought to see each other with brotherly affection, and as equals in conscience and human worth.” For a time following Gov. Bentley’s words, Rabbi Miller and other non-Christians were enraged.

Two days later, Gov. Bentley apologized to both community leaders and the public. He organized meetings on Wednesday with concerned community leaders (including Rabbi Miller) and the press. Among his words to the press, Gov. Bentley said, “The terminology that I used I believe seemed to disenfranchise other religions and it certainly was not meant to do that. And what I would like to do is apologize. Anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised I want to say that I’m sorry. If you’re not a person who can say that you’re sorry than you’re not a very good leader.”

What was the result of Gov. Bentley’s apology to non-Christians in the state? As predicted in my prior post, intergroup attitudes improved, intergroup trust was partially restored, and forgiveness was attained. Consider the words of Rabbi Miller about Gov. Bentley following the meeting. “He’s looking to fix the thing. He was apologetic. He’s clearly looking to reconcile himself. All of us have put out words we wish we could take back.” In later comments, Rabbi Miller went on to say about Gov. Bentley, “We certainly expect from his words and deeds today that he will not be a governor who will divide us over religious issues.”

Relative to other conflict resolution strategies that I have written about, intergroup apologies are simple and easy to implement. This does not mean that they are always effective; under many conditions, they will not be. Yet, the result of Gov. Bentley’s apology to non-Christians in Alabama points out that their value should not be underestimated. In certain cases, a simple apology may effectively resolve serious conflict between groups.

Read more:

Blatz, C.W., & Philpot, C. (2010). On the outcomes of intergroup apologies. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 995-1007.

Alabama’s new governor apologies for Christian comments, Rabbi accepts (CNN)

Alabama governor touches off controversy with Christian comments (CNN)

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts

Partitioning Sudan: Failure or Successful Resolution?

Voter registration line in Abyei

People lined up to register to vote in Abyei, Sudan, 18 November 2009. Photo courtesy of U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan. The views expressed here have not been endorsed by the Special Envoy.

A vote for independence from the north is the expected outcome of the referendum in southern Sudan, which was held from 9-15 January 2011. Sudan’s fractured history goes much deeper than the more recent killing and displacement in the Darfur region, including two civil wars between the more developed Islamic north and the impoverished tribal south. The latter conflict was mainly over the religious autonomy of the south and division of oil revenues. (The majority of Sudan’s oilfields are in the south while refineries and pipelines to the seaports are in the north). The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement established tentative peace and mandated a referendum for independence.

Some consider the partitioning of a country to be a failure of diplomacy and intergroup contact.  For southern Sudan gaining independence, although fraught with many new challenges, might be an opportunity to gain equal status with the north. According to Gordan Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis, equal status is one of the four necessary preconditions for decreasing intergroup prejudice and anxiety. Commentary on Allport’s work (Esses, Jackson, Dovidio, & Hodson, 2008) claims that reducing competition for tangible resources and attenuating symbolic conflict over issues such as identity and religion need to happen simultaneously. In fact, decreasing tension over sovereignty and religious freedom might create more political space to negotiate sharing oil revenues.

On the Ground: Answering Your Sudan Questions, Take 1

Esses, V. M., Jackson, L. M., Dovidio, J. F. and Hodson, G. (2008). Instrumental relations among groups: Group competition, conflict, and prejudice. In J. F. Dovidio, P. Glick and L. A. Rudman (Eds.), On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport (pp. 227 – 243). Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK.