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Prejudice – Can it be reduced subconsciously? July 19, 2009

Posted by Geekgirl in psychology, social.

“Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes”. How many times have we heard this saying? More importantly, how many times do we try on someone else’s shoes.  Ever taken the time to imagine having someone else’s life?

Researchers at Brock University in Ontario, Canada did just that. They developed a classroom exercise designed to reduce prejudice against homosexuals. And they were clever enough not to tell the “test subjects”, who were simply students taking a class, that they were examining attitudes toward homosexuals. After all, that would kind of ruin the experiment, now wouldn’t it?

This work is in press and the abstract is available online. I’ll put the abstract at the end of the article.

So how did they manage to pull this off?

Let’s go through this step by step. It’s a simple enough paper that it can also be used to outline how these type of experiments are done.

Step 1 – Measuring students attitudes before the classroom exercise

All students identified as heterosexual. Students took several psychological tests that measure empathy (the Batson test),  a shortened Right Wing Authoritarianism test (Altemeyer)(see – I told you I would bring it up again), attitudes toward marginalized groups including Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, homosexuals, obese people, immigrants), a shortened Religious Fundamentalism Scale, a test measuring political orientation both socially and economically and, last, but not least, a test Known as SDO,Social Dominance Orientation. SDO measures an individual’s preference for disparity between groups. In essence it measures the extent to which a person views the world as a competitive environment where one must compete for resources.

Step 2 – Divide the students into two groups.

The psychological test results were used to ensure that each group had a range of students with similar perspectives.

Group 1 went through a conventional lecture series educating them about LGBT people. This group is referred to as the control group. That will be important later so for now, just remember it.

Group 2 went through a simulation exercise. They were NOT told that the simulation was designed to see if their attitudes toward homosexuals changed.

So what was the simulation exercise? Students were put on a spaceship to Alien Nation. Alien Nation has 3000 students living in it and  the rules are quite different from earth. Students live in same-sex housing, no public displays of affection are allowed, all procreation is through artificial insemination. Violators are dealed with in a strict manner, different political opinions receive a hostile reaction, otherwise people are treated well. Researchers never mentioned homosexuality during this exercise.

(For you science fiction fans, we’ve seen this in how many scifi movies? THX1138, springs to mind.)

Step 3 – What did the students experience?

Students who went to Alien Nation expressed feelings of the desire to maintain their Earth life style, continue their romantic relationships and were able to find others who felt the way that they did. They experienced negative emotions about having to hide who they were.

Students in the control group received standard university type lectures on homophobia, discrimination, history of the LGBT movement, classification of homosexuality as mentally ill and history of legislation that was progressive. No opportunity for discussion was provided.

Step 4 – We’re here! What were the results?

Students who went to Alien Nation answered 20 scripted questions. They did not make any references to homosexuality during their interviews, showing that they had not made a connection to homosexuality during the exercise.

Students answered questions regarding their enjoyment of the experience – only slightly higher enjoyment for those in the simulation exercise. Students answered questions asking if their social attitudes had changed, all said no. Yet, when they actually took a test about their attitudes, students in the simulation exercise experienced more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals than those in the classroom exercise.

Step 5 – So what does this really say?

Students in the classroom exercise knew that they were being educated about homosexuality, this is called cognitive learning. Yet, their attitudes did not improve as much as the students who did NOT know that they were being educated about homosexuality. The simulation exercise is an example of affective learning, where affect refers to emotions. (If you know anything about depression, it is an “affective” disorder.)

The bottom line is that we  can learn to reduce prejudice without even knowing it, just  by experiencing life in someone else’s shoes. Think about it. It is well known that people who know someone gay is more likely to support gay rights. Think of the possibilities for classroom lessons using this technique. Maybe Gene Roddenberry’s dream for the future really can come true.

Experiencing Alien-Nation: Effects of a simulation intervention on attitudes toward homosexuals

Gordon Hodson *, Becky L. Choma, Kimberly Costello

Department of Psychology, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada L2S 3A1

Revised 23 December 2008  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

The authors explored psychological mechanisms underlying a teaching exercise [Hillman, J., & Martin, R. A. (2002). Lessons about gay and lesbian lives: A spaceship exercise. Teaching of Psychology, 29, 308–311]that may improve attitudes toward homosexuals. Heterosexual participants were randomly assigned to asimulation intervention or control lecture condition. In the simulation condition, participants imagined life on an alien planet that inadvertently simulated situational constraints parallel to those faced by homosexuals.

The simulation (vs. control lecture) produced significantly more intergroup perspective taking, empathy, and favorable attitudes toward homosexuals and marginalized groups. Tests of a structural equation model supported the assumption that the simulation (vs. control) provided an experience that heightened intergroup perspective-taking, which indirectly predicted favorable attitudes via independent cognitive (inclusive intergroup representations) and affective (empathy) paths.

The model held after statistically controlling for prior attitudes and ideological individual differences predicting antihomosexual bias. Implications for prejudice-reduction simulations and intergroup contact are considered.

_ 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. The abstract can be found online at Science Direct.



1. SisyphusQ - July 19, 2009

Awesome, Geekgirl! And it makes a lot of sense. I used to work in an company that was supposed to be “liberal”, and saw first hand that simply to cognitively teach people that treating gays and trans people poorly is wrong, always failed. People sat disdainfully through the classes and then became *more* disrespectful for weeks and months afterward, because they felt their “right” (to be jerks, essentially) had been abused.

The only things that seemed to work in such an environment was threats of getting in trouble (“you will be disciplined/fired for doing anything discriminatory that could get this company sued..” for example), and — the only real solution — have enough “out” people around to eventually reach (some, never all) of these folks over many months or even years. They had to come to it on their own, it seemed, or they felt “oppressed” in being told they shouldn’t be oppressive.

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