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Short interactions with someone from a different ethnic group can reduce prejudices, study finds

“The right kind of intergroup interactions, even if brief, can have lasting benefits,” the Stanford researchers wrote.

The study had student volunteers making a music video for the band Camila.

People who freely take part, even briefly, in another person’s culture will later express fewer prejudices toward members of that culture’s ethnic group, a new study from Stanford University has found.

And the improved attitudes toward the other group apparently remain in place months later.

“Often, the expression of distinctive cultural interests by minority-group members is seen as risky — an invitation to be perceived through the lens of a stereotype,” write the study’s two authors, Gregory Walton, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, and PhD student Tiffany Brannon. “An important implication of the present research is that it highlights the benefits that can arise when minority-group members express and share positive aspects of their culture in mainstream settings.”

But the study’s findings also found a catch to this positive outcome: If people feel they are being forced to engage in a cultural activity, they hold on to their prejudices.

Subtle cues

As Walton and Brannon explain in their study, which was published last week in the journal Psychological Science, other research has shown that extended social interactions with people from a different racial or ethnic group — the sharing of a university dorm room by a black and a white student, for example — can significantly reduce prejudices. In addition, previous studies have demonstrated that small cues, like a common birthday, can cause people to feel socially connected to each other.

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With that earlier research in mind, the Stanford researchers decided to investigate whether small cues could, like extended personal contact, both improve people’s attitudes and reduce their prejudices toward other groups.

They went about this with a series of experiments. In the first, the researchers invited 51 white Canadian undergraduate students to participate in a study that was ostensibly about exchanging worldviews with someone from another ethnic group. Each student was paired with a Chinese-Canadian student who was part of the research team, although the other students did not know this. During some of the one-on-one conversations, the Chinese-Canadian student subtly mimicked the body posture of the white student — an action that is known to promote social connection.

Those students whose body posture had been mimicked expressed greater interest in Chinese culture on a subsequent questionnaire than those who had not been mimicked. In addition, they were more likely to go through the trouble of filling out multiple lottery tickets to win Chinese cultural products (such as Chinese films) than the students who had not been mimicked.

These findings suggest, say Walton and Brannon, that small social-connecting cues can increase interest in other people’s culture.

But does stimulating that interest also reduce prejudice?

Something in common

To examine that question, the researchers recruited 58 non-Latina female undergraduates (31 whites, 23 Asian-Americans, and four whose race is not specified in the study). Each was paired with a Latina student who, unknown to her student-partner, was part of the research team. During an orchestrated “getting-to-know-you” session, the Latina student purposely revealed that she was Mexican-American. She also revealed that she shared an interest — such as a favorite book — with the other student. (The information had been obtained from a survey the non-Latina students had been given weeks before.)

Told they were participating in a study on music and the media, the paired students were instructed to make a music video for a new pop group. They were asked to choose between a fictitious Canadian rock band or an actual band called Camila — a choice that the Latina woman enthusiastically declared she liked. Half of the students were told Camila was popular in Mexico; the others were told it was popular in Portugal. All students opted to use Camila as the topic of their video.

During the making of the video, the Latina woman provided relevant cultural information, suggesting, for example, either Mexican or Portuguese dance moves.

The project took only 15 minutes to complete. But afterward, the non-Latina students who were socially connected to the Latina student through a shared interest and who had incorporated Mexican culture into their project showed significantly less implicit prejudice against Latinos.

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Walton and Brannon then repeated the experiment, only this time the students were told — after the Latina women had expressed her preference — that they must make the video for Camila. These students showed no reduction in anti-Latino bias when they had completed the project.

Long-lasting results

Finally, the Stanford researchers surveyed the students from the second and third experiments about six months later. They found that those students who had felt a social connection with their Latina partner and who had freely chosen Camila for the video had a greater interest in interacting with Mexican-Americans.

They also expressed significantly more positive attitudes toward undocumented Mexican immigrants.

“It was impressive that a short interaction in a laboratory could facilitate more positive implicit attitudes immediately and better attitudes in the long-term,” observed Walton and Brannon in a press statement. “The right kind of intergroup interactions, even if brief, can have lasting benefits.”