Associating Against Prejudice

Leon Neyfakh points to the work of Calvin Lai, a social psychologist who studies how to fight bias. Recently he tested a variety of strategies to get people to change how they view racial minorities:

The most effective, Lai found, involved exposing people to so-called counter-stereotypical images. In one intervention, which echoed the breakthrough study by Dasgupta and Greenwald from 2001, this took the form of showing people photos of widely admired black celebrities like Bill Cosby alongside notorious white evildoers like Charles Manson. In another effective approach, test subjects listened to stories, told in the second person, about a white assailant attempting to hurt them and a black man coming to their rescue. The emotional pull of the experience seemed to be key. Researchers found that making the story longer and more vivid—changing it from “With sadistic pleasure, he bashes you with his bat again and again” to “With sadistic pleasure, he beats you again and again. First to the body, then to the head. You fight to keep your eyes open and your hands up. The last things you remember are the faint smells of alcohol and chewing tobacco and his wicked grin”—was doubly effective at reducing bias.

Another approach that worked well when Lai tested it involved telling participants to imagine a scenario in which they were playing a game of dodge ball in which everyone on their team was black while everyone on the opposing team was white. A similar effective intervention also had participants imagine themselves navigating a highly threatening post-apocalyptic scenario, before being shown photos of their “friends,” who were mostly black, and their “enemies,” who were all white.