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Can you combat prejudice with humanizing media? Nope, says BYU study

A sign in support of immigrants hangs on a tree outside of an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Miramar, Fla. Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood arrivals) program created by President Barack Obama in 2012, which benefited nearly 80,000 youth with temporary work permits and protected them from deportation. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky
A sign in support of immigrants hangs on a tree outside of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Miramar, Fla.

You've probably seen the commercials, a Latino family sitting around the dinner table, a Black father playing in the park with his son. They're meant to be heartwarming.

Voters see those types of messages everywhere during election season.

Conventional wisdom tells us that humanizing marginalized groups can change minds and influence people when it comes to issues like immigration. A new study from Brigham Young University, though, challenges that common belief. It finds those kinds of media messages don't actually combat prejudice.

Researchers showed video clips and images that humanized Latino immigrants to over 5,000 study participants in the western U.S.

The findings, published in the Journal of Politics, show that those messages simply reinforce what viewers already think about that group — either positive or negative.

Participants that already harbored animosity were not swayed at all, while participants who were already empathetic were more so after participating.

Josh Gubler, an associate professor of political science at BYU and one of the study authors, told KUER’s Pamela McCall he was surprised at how ineffective the messages were at changing people’s hearts and minds.

“We know that the pictures and the documentaries and other things that we used in the study — we know they humanized an outgroup that at least some of our participants saw as less than human. It was surprising to see how little empathy was generated. We had expected it would be less, but not quite as little as we ended up finding.”

The researchers expected at least some shift in attitude.

“But among those who started with the most negative perceptions of the outgroup in our study, we really find no movement at all.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: One of the key theories of this study was dissonance. What is dissonance and how does it shape human behavior?

Gubler: Dissonance is often an unconscious feeling of unease — of discomfort — that a particular component of our lived experience and our inferences from it are not correct. In this particular case, I might have built up my sense of self in comparison to another group of people that dehumanizes that group of people. A set of stereotypes, for example. If I receive compelling evidence that that is wrong, then that challenges not only that piece of information but also my sense of self, because I have acted on that. I've treated people in a certain way.

McCall: What was the effect on people who were already empathetic toward these groups?

Gubler: If you were already empathetic to begin with, we found this nice “rally the base/preaching to the choir” effect. You know, people showed even more empathy. They liked the outgroup to begin with, they showed even more.

McCall: How do you explain that? How does that work?

Gubler: Well, it's a confirmation of your lived experience. Confirmation of the goodness of self. If I've had pleasant experiences with a group of people and then I see them depicted in ways that align with that set of experiences, that calls up the pleasant feelings that I had in the past. And so in a self-report measure of empathy, after this experience, I actually increase. I feel good about it.

McCall: If political messages don't change minds, what are they good for?

Gubler: I think if you're a politician, you often have an interest in rallying the base, because a rallied base is often willing to get out and vote. But this study does cast doubt on attempts to change minds. There are ways, potentially, to construct ads that are much more effective. But the standard approach, the go-to intuitive approach that is most often used by both politicians and activists — here we find evidence, and it's evidence consistent with other studies we've done, that approach just often is a lot less effective than we think.

McCall: If empathy can't change hearts and minds, what can?

Gubler: I think the key finding here is not that empathy can't change hearts at least, but that empathy coupled with dissonance doesn't do it. So if I can get people to link a certain group to a set of experiences in their own lives that do generate real empathy, that call up pleasant memories and associations, that I think does have the power to change both hearts and minds. The trick is doing that without also at the same time creating this feeling of unease and discomfort because what we show here is that dissonance disrupts.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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