Thought Experiment: Using Cognitive Dissonance to Reduce Stereotyping and Prejudice

Stereotyping is prevalent in humans; it is a way to reduce the cognitive load we carry on a daily basis, so it is adaptive in a sense: we just can’t spend all our time evaluating people on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, there are times where this stereotyping can result in terrible consequences, like the recent death of Trayvon Martin. So, while there are times stereotyping is adaptive, there potentially may be certain stereotypes that are worth trying to change, such as the association of young black men with crime or violence. Stereotypes, though, can be really resistant to change, as when presented with someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype, one can make an external attribution for the person to explain away this difference and retain the stereotype, or one can create a new subtype for the person to retain the stereotype.

Cognitive dissonance could potentially provide a framework for creating some sort of salient stereotype change. Past research has shown that introducing cognitive dissonance has resulted in behavioral change. Dickerson et al., (1992)  did a water conservation study in which they introduced dissonance in female swimmers about to take a shower by reminding them of their past failures in conserving water and then having them make a public commitment to conservation. This combination introduced tension between the swimmers’ past behavior and their present mindset, which resulted in them taking shorter showers than those who did not make a public commitment and had no reminder of past water conservation failure.

So how would we apply cognitive dissonance to stereotype change? I propose using a paradigm called the Police Officer’s Dilemma that has been used in past research to show that in a simulation of a possible violent confrontation, unarmed blacks are shot in error more often. This research has also more recently shown that this bias exists only in simulations safe contexts, not dangerous contexts (where both whites and blacks are shot more).  As a sidenote, similar sorts of findings have been found in ERP studies of weapon bias, where even with no prior racial bias, blacks are thought to have weapons when they do not more often, showing the automatic nature of the stereotype. In the Police Officer’s Dilemma paradigm, subjects are placed in a video game-like simulation where they are presented with white or black targets that are armed or unarmed and are asked to shoot armed targets and not shoot unarmed targets.

My proposed usage of cognitive dissonance to affect change would start with subjects completing this task. At the end of this task, subjects would be informed on how they did. The task would only utilize the safe context simulations where the research has shown this racial bias exists, making it likely subjects would make errors on the task, or at least make more than they thought they would. Taking a page out of Dickerson’s research, I would then have subjects make some sort of public commitment to reducing prejudice, like signing a petition that has signatures displayed publicly or writing some sort of blurb to be posted on a website. The combination of these two tasks should introduce cognitive dissonance in the participants: they would have a reminder of past/not-so-past failures (the errors on the shooting task) as well as a public commitment, leading to tension between their behaviors that have resulted in racial bias (even though it is not necessarily their fault) and their new commitment to reducing prejudice. They should resolve this cognitive dissonance by hopefully changing their attitudes, which we might be able to test by either putting them through the Police Officer’s Dilemma again, or using the weapon bias ERP task.

So would this work? Even though I just proposed it, I’m not so sure, because of the nature of stereotyping. Stereotyping is so automatic, that you do not need to have some sort of preexisting attitude towards certain races to engage in it. What really is of concern is the link between young black men and violence/danger. There needs to be an attenuation of this link, a removal of this as a valid stereotype that people tap into. It’s not necessarily about telling people they are racist for utilizing this stereotype, but presenting enough evidence that counteracts this stereotype that the stereotype gets changed on a national level. Obviously, this would be quite an undertaking, so every little thing that people can do to attenuate this very harmful stereotype from young black men would help. Perhaps this cognitive dissonance technique can be part of this process.

Huge hat-tips to this great Scientific American post and this excellent TNR post about the subject specific to the Trayvon Martin case.


The Bachelor and Misattribution of Arousal

Ah, the Bachelor. A goldmine for pop-culture pundits and social psychologists equally, the Bachelor is always there (since 2002) to be laughed at, used for criticisms, or, you know, enjoyed. Specifically, for my purposes, the Bachelor is great because it is a nice public venue for social psychological processes, especially romantic ones. It’s logical, given that the show throws 25 women and 1 man into a 10-week speed-engagement process, where the Bachelor and all the contestants try to figure out if they can truly find love (or at least what they think is true love).

Interestingly enough, the producers seem to be clued in to/got lucky with social psychological processes, as shown by an early-season episode featuring a date with the Bachelor (Ben) and a contestant Emily. Before the date, the producers treat us to a nice little soundbite from Emily noting that her one big fear is heights. Naturally, when she gets to the date, she finds out that Ben and her get to climb up the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, which unfortunately for her, is 526 feet tall. Of course, this causes immediate consternation in Emily, as she harps on the fact that a little harness clipping them to the bridge is the only thing separating her from a long fall, and also to her chagrin, every so often while they go up the bridge, they have to unclip their harness from the the bridge to move it over an impassable piece of the railing. So is this torture, some sort of cruel game by the producers to exploit Emily’s fear on national television?

Worked out okay, huh?

Actually, if anything, it is a clever play by the producers to make sure Emily is attracted to Ben. The study by Dutton and Aron (1974) about the shaky bridge and attraction showed that people are prone to mislabeling their physiological arousal as attraction. In the study, those who crossed the high, scary bridge in Canada and met a female experimenter right afterwards were more likely to have sexual themes when taking the Thematic Apperception Test as well as more likely to display the behavior indicator of attraction of calling the experimenter after the field portion of the experiment completed. So, in the case we are looking at, playing on Emily’s fear of heights is a sure way to raise her arousal levels considerably, and with strong, handsome Ben to comfort  and accompany her on the climb, Emily is probably labeling those symptoms of arousal as symptoms of attraction to Ben. This is good for the producers, as it would be a pretty bad season if no one ended up being attracted to Ben.

I would question, though, what effect does this have in the long run? Sure, Emily might feel attracted to Ben because of this ploy, but does that attraction persist past this event? Does the attraction convert into love? Those questions remain unanswered, partly since much of the literature that resulted in the aftermath of the Dutton and Aron study focused on alternative explanations for the mechanism of this arousal-attraction link. In my opinion, this is still a pretty good tactic for getting the contestants to fall for the Bachelor, at least compared to normal, less intensely arousing dates, based of the idea that a foot in the door is better than no foot at all. In terms of long-term attraction, it might be better for the producers to find some sort of thing that will terrify both the Bachelor and his date, causing some sort of mutual attraction as a result.

Being the Green Lantern Might Not Be As Cool As You Think

Being the Green Lantern is probably pretty cool. You have a pretty sweet ring that you can use to pretty much whatever you want as long as you focus on it. You can make any solid construct you can think about, which is clearly pretty handy whether you are fighting bad guys or saving innocents. You can also fly pretty fast, which also helps with the fighting and the saving. Furthermore, you get access to this whole planet of other Green Lanterns that train you and back you up in battle. All you have to do is be utterly fearless. But that’s the problem: being fearless is really, really, stupid.

We know from social psychology literature that emotions are pretty important. They motivate behavior through the link between emotions and action tendencies, they serve as communication to others, and they are a pretty crucial part of the human experience, as we experience physiological responses often, and we need emotions to attach a label to those responses to help us make sense of them. Furthermore, we know from the literature that emotions are adaptive, as the action tendencies that come from emotions led to behaviors that either help your survival or your reproduction chances, the two most important things for passing your genes on.

Fear is one of these emotions. Fear lets you know that there is some sort of danger present that could possibly threaten your survival, so you better get yourself away from whatever would be causing you harm. Green Lanterns are known for being fearless; in the film, the character played by Ryan Reynolds is selected to be the next Green Lantern in Earth’s sector because he is a fearless test pilot. And the movie spells it out definitively: fearless isn’t just another way to talk about being brave, fearless is meant as the complete lack of fear. Unfortunately, that lack of fear is tremendously maladaptive; without fear, we wouldn’t have the impulse to get away from things with significant chances of causing our deaths, which would make our genes pretty short-lived. So why it would be pretty cool to be a Green Lantern and get the powers that come with the role, giving up the ability to have the fear emotion doesn’t quite seem like a fair trade-off.