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.

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