Political ads depicting “outgroups” with relevant experiences, such as images of immigrants eating Thanksgiving dinner or videos of refugees hugging their children, did little to increase empathy in people with high outgroup hostility, the study found. in a new BYU study. Written by: Jarren Wilkie

It seems intuitive: if you want to soften the hearts of marginalized people, show them that they are human just like everyone else. This is the theory behind countless media reports that show “outgroups” having close experiences, such as images of immigrants eating Thanksgiving dinner or videos of refugees hugging their children.


Unfortunately, humanizing messages do little to increase empathy in people with high hostility toward an outgroup, although they do increase empathy in those who already have a positive view of the outgroup, according to a new BYU study published in the Journal of Politics.

“The main approach activists have taken to reduce prejudice around the world, in conflict resolution groups, documentaries and refugee organizations, is humanizing messages,” said BYU political science professor Joshua Gubler. “People think they’re effective, but that’s because they’re preaching to the choir and the choir responds accordingly. There is value in rallying a base, but that is different from changing the minds of those targeted. “

For this study, researchers first surveyed 3,498 Republicans in the western US about their attitudes toward Latino immigrants, and then re-surveyed their attitudes after they watched clips from a documentary intended to put a face on immigrants. After watching the documentary, all participants were more inclined to view immigrants as human beings, but only those who had previously viewed immigrants favorably became more empathetic.

The researchers assumed that dissonance— the unpleasant emotions of realizing the beliefs that have shaped our worldview are potentially wrong — prevented us from empathizing with those who mistreat immigrants.

“Dissonance challenges our sense of self, and most people don’t like to pay the price of confronting it. “We found it interesting that when the documentary made the case that immigrants are people and not just stereotypes, some participants felt uncomfortable, and their discomfort overshadowed the empathy they might otherwise have developed,” Gubler said.

To test their hypothesis, the team designed a second phase of the experiment with 1,982 participants. This time, after showing touching images of Latinos and confirming that the photos had a humanizing effect, they told half the participants that immigrants were documented and half that they were undocumented. They then asked all participants to confirm in writing that they agreed with a list of statements describing positive qualities of immigrants.

Compared to participants with low initial hostility toward immigrants, participants with high initial hostility were approximately three times more likely to report dissonant emotions after this task and significantly less likely to report empathy. Dissonance accounted for 23% of their lower level of empathy.

“Dissonance was a significant predictor of attitude change,” Gubler said. “The conventional wisdom is that you go from humanizing to empathizing to changing attitudes—this study shows why many attempts to do this fail.”

So, if humanization doesn’t help reduce prejudice, what does? Answering that “million dollar question” is the research team’s next goal, Gubler said. He outlined two possible approaches they are exploring to manage dissonance conflict resolution.

One option is to avoid dissonance altogether by asking people to reflect and write about positive encounters they’ve had with other groups, even if they can only find one or two good things. “Because it’s their own experience and already woven into their psyche, they’re less likely to get dissonant recoil,” Gubler explained.

Another potential strategy is to tell people in advance that they are likely to experience dissonance, normalize the discomfort, and encourage them to work through it rather than avoid it.

“People often don’t realize how dissonance affects them, how blocking it can be empathy” he said. “When we make it conscious for people, it allows us to discuss dissonance as a learning opportunity.”


Correcting misconceptions about migrants and increasing empathy for them


Additional information:
Joshua R. Gubler et al., Changing Hearts and Minds? Why media messages designed to foster empathy often fail Journal of politics (2022). DOI: 10.1086/719416

Citation: Media messages that humanize outgroups don’t combat prejudice, study finds (2022, October 11), retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-10-media-messages -humanize-outgroups-dont.html

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