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Why You Should Always Confront Prejudice

2013 April 17
by Eric Horowitz

What goes through your mind when somebody makes a racist or sexist remark? Perhaps you feel a strong desire to expose their morally bankrupt worldview through an artful recitation of contemporary philosophy and social science research. Perhaps the potential awkwardness of scolding an acquaintance leads you to avoid confrontation. Whatever you’ve done in the past, a new study suggests you should do everything you can to avoid the latter outcome in the future. Not only does failing to confront prejudice help preserve a perpetrator’s intolerance, a series of three experiments found that looking the other way can literally make you a worse person.

The study, which was led by the University of Toledo’s Heather Rasinski, is based on the theory of cognitive dissonance. Essentially, when a person senses a discrepancy between their beliefs (e.g. caring about the poor) and their behavior (ignoring a homeless person), the result is a feeling of psychological discomfort that the person will be motivated to eliminate (telling yourself the homeless man would have spent the money on drugs). Rasinski and her team hypothesized that when somebody who values confronting prejudice fails to do so, they will attempt to eliminate the gap between their beliefs and actions. Specifically, the researchers proposed that failing to confront a sexist would raise a person’s opinion of the perpetrator and weaken their commitment to confront prejudice.

In each experiment female participants first rated their beliefs about the importance of confronting prejudice and then engaged in a “Deserted Island” task with a confederate. The task involved selecting from an existing set of people those who would be most helpful on a deserted island. The confederate, whose introductory remarks contained traces of sexism, chose all males until his final selection, when he justified his choice of a female with a sexist remark (“She’s pretty hot. I think we need more women on the island to keep the men satisfied.”) After the remark, one group of participants had an opportunity to confront the confederate during a subsequent 10-second silence, while the other group was denied such an opportunity because a buzzer signaling the end of the experiment went off immediately after the remark. The researchers were interested in how the missed opportunity affected participants.

In the first experiment, participants who were committed to confronting prejudice rated the confederate as less biased and more likable when they passed up the opportunity to confront him compared to when they had no opportunity. It would seem that in order to justify failing to confront a sexist, participants convinced themselves the sexist wasn’t actually that sexist. A follow up experiment found that a self-affirmation exercise in which participants recalled their positive characteristics could mitigate this effect.

In the final experiment, among participants who initially placed a high-importance on confronting prejudice but failed to act in their opportunity to do so, there was a significant decline in the belief that confronting prejudice is important. Once again, in order to justify their failure to act, participants appeared to weaken their beliefs in the vileness of sexism.

The results provide strong evidence that looking the other way in the face of prejudice is not only harmful for those you fail to criticize, it’s harmful to your own enlightened worldview. Failing to confront prejudice sends a powerful signal to yourself about yourself, and that signal helps form a belief system that’s more tolerant of prejudice.

The study is also a nice demonstration of the metacognitive processes that make habits so easy to form and so hard to break. Whenever you decide to do something the decision is analyzed and used to inform future decisions. For example, if you don’t confront a racist, it must mean that you don’t care that much about racism. Similarly, if you decide to eat pizza instead of going to the gym, it must mean that, relative to your previous beliefs, pizza is marginally more awesome and working out is marginally less awesome. The result is that next time you have to make a similar decision, your prior analysis will make you more likely to choose pizza. And if you do manage to choose the gym, you’ll have the discomfort of trying to figure out why you didn’t choose the gym last time. Were you wrong last time? Are you wrong this time? What else are you wrong about? From a psychological standpoint, it’s more comfortable to remain consistent.
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Rasinski, H., Geers, A., & Czopp, A. (2013). “I Guess What He Said Wasn’t That Bad”: Dissonance in Nonconfronting Targets of Prejudice Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167213484769

One Response leave one →
  1. October 7, 2013

    Except your own, of course. Just let that roll…

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