clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

All Muslims are often blamed for single acts of terror. Psychology explains how to stop it.

You can’t fight prejudice with name calling. Here’s one strategy that actually works.

151230 COMMENT Eva Bee Ikon Images/Eva Bee/Getty Creative Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda videos from a known hate group. The videos — one of which has been revealed to be fake — purport to demonstrate the dangers Muslims pose to Western society: that Muslim migrants beat up white Europeans, threaten Western culture, and mock Western religious figures.

As my colleagues at Vox have pointed out, Trump’s retweets fit with a pattern: He feels that the whole of Islam, collectively, is a threat to the United States and the West. He treats Muslims as a monolith, a group of millions who deserve to be banned from the United States. There’s a psychological theory that helps explain this tendency: “collective blame,” when we punish the whole for the actions of a few.

In some ways, Trump is channeling how many people in America feel about Muslims. We see collective blame rear its head after an act of terror committed by a member of the Islamic faith. “Maybe most [Muslims are] peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible,” Rupert Murdoch tweeted after the 2015 terrorist attack in France. A similar sentiment often repeats on Murdoch’s Fox News.

There’s nothing logical about condemning millions of people — who are spread across the globe and are unrelated to each other except by religious tradition — for the actions of a few. You wouldn’t blame all white people for the actions of Dylann Roof, who walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African-American worshippers. You wouldn’t blame all Christians for the meanness of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Yet collective blame happens, with ugly consequences.

As psychologists learn more about the phenomenon, they’re also gathering ideas about how we might combat it. And a series of experiments, forthcoming in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, demonstrate a crafty, nonthreatening way to get people to realize that when they engage in collective blame, they’re hypocrites.

Behavioral science researchers — like Emile Bruneau and his colleagues Nour Kteily and Emily Falk, who co-authored these studies — are usually better at describing the psychological problems that fuel conflict than they are at offering solutions. But their new work offers tantalizing clues for how to break the cycle of collective blame and retribution.

You can’t decrease prejudice through name calling

Collective blame doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s correlated with many other ideas and behaviors that increase hostilities toward Muslims. In his studies with Kteily, Bruneau finds that collective blame among American non-Muslims is correlated with blatant dehumanization — thinking others are less than human.

It’s also correlated with support for anti-Muslim immigration policies, and prejudice against them. People who engage in collective blame of Muslims are more likely to agree with statements like, “We should ban the wearing of the Islamic veil,” and, “We should ban the opening of any new mosques in this country.” They’d rather the US government spend money building surveillance networks in Muslim-majority communities than building libraries in those communities.

“If you collectively blame an entire group for the actions of individuals, it makes it totally reasonable to exact your revenge from any person from that group,” Bruneau, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, says. “You get a cycle going on where each cycle is motivated to commit violence against totally innocent members of the other group.”

Bruneau sees collective blame as a place to intervene on many of these measures and break the cycle.

But so often, advocates fail to find a message that will change the minds of those who are already prejudiced. Simply calling people out on their prejudice doesn’t work, as Vox’s German Lopez has thoroughly outlined. Name calling provokes defensiveness, not understanding. Same goes for shaming. And we’re often making a grave mistake in trying to argue: The arguments we personally find convincing are often unlikely to convince an opponent.

But highlighting hypocrisy can help

Here’s where Bruneau and his colleagues did something unusual for psychology. Instead of crafting an intervention around a psychological theory, they went out to advocacy groups and asked them: What videos do you use to combat anti-Mulism prejudice?

“I don’t think scientists are best ones to create interventions for the real world,” Bruneau says. “That’s not a scientist skill set.”

The organizations sent him 60 videos, which the researchers pared down to eight (see them all here on page 50). The experiment that followed was kind of like the A/B tests marketing companies use to find the most compelling ad copy.

Some of the videos focused on humanizing Muslims — showing how they are diverse, hardworking members of their communities. Others pointed out data that shows that the Muslim world, overall, views Americans favorably. Another showed a news clip of a young white conservative man who had a change of heart after being invited inside a mosque. Yet another was a clip from Last Week Tonight in which host John Oliver calls out Fox News for conflating Muslim refugees with terrorists.

The researchers randomly assigned 2,000 participants to watch either one of these videos, a control condition with no video, or a “negative control” video in which an Arab woman endorses the idea that all Muslims are to blame for global conflicts. After showing the videos, the researchers gave participants a survey testing their propensity for collective blame.

The only video that worked to reduce the collective blame of Muslims compared to a control group was one that explained how hypocritical it is to blame all Muslims for the actions of a few. The video (which you can see below) features a Muslim guest on a news program. “The Westboro Baptist Church, they were Christians,” she says. “The KKK was lynching people in this country — they were also Christians. This fixation and obsession with asking Muslims to condemn all acts of terrorism ... is ridiculous, and it wears me out.”

Among participants who saw this video, not only did collective blame decrease but so did support for anti-Muslim policies and Islamophobia (by an average of 10 points on a 100-point scale).

The “negative control” video did the opposite: It made participants even more likely to collectively blame Muslims.

Here’s the hard part: how to get people to realize they’re hypocrites

The result from the video test was interesting, but the researchers didn’t want to stop there.

They wondered if they could design an exercise to get participants thinking more deeply about the hypocrisy of collective blame and then change their minds.

So they designed a questionnaire that led participants through a series of questions. The first:

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and during a prayer service killed nine African American parishioners. Roof cited his White identity as a motivation for the attacks. How responsible do you think you are for the acts of Dylann Roof?

How responsible do you think White Americans are for the acts of Dylann Roof?

The exercise continued with questions about how responsible white Americans are for Anders Breivik, a Norwegian white nationalist who killed 77 in 2011, and how responsible white Americans are for the actions of the KKK.

The exercise ended on these questions.

Muniba is a Muslim who owns a small bakery in Southern France. How responsible do you think Muniba is for the Paris attacks [in 2015]?

Ahmed is a Muslim who works in a bank in Jordan. How responsible do you think Ahmed is for the Paris attacks?

Tareq is Muslim who is an apprentice architect in Paris. How responsible do you think Tareq is for the Paris attacks?

After completing this exercise, levels of collective blame dropped by nearly half compared to a control group (a nearly 18-point decrease). The people who completed this activity also were less likely to dehumanize Muslims, showed less support for anti-Muslim policies, and were less likely to agree to sign an anti-Muslim petition.

Why? “It’s uncomfortable to hold conflicting views about yourself,” Emily Falk, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a study co-author, says. “If you think hypocrisy is a bad thing, and that holding Islamophobic viewpoints would make you a hypocrite, then you need to change something.”

More recently, Bruneau has repeated this exercise with a group in Spain. There, he found the effects lasted for at least a month. “This was significant both because it allowed me to determine if the effects ‘stick’, and also because in that time there was an attack by Muslim extremists in Barcelona that killed 15 people and wounded over 100,” he says. “Therefore, we were able to see if the effects of the intervention were persistent, even in the face of a violent attack.”

Again, the key to this exercise is that you can’t start by calling someone a hypocrite outright. You have to lead them to that thought.

It’s similar to the approach that was used in an experiment to decrease transphobia in the real world. Here, experimenters didn’t tell transphobic voters directly that their views were wrong. Instead, they asked them a series of questions designed to get them to reassess their prejudices.

Maybe “the best way to change someone’s heart is to change someone’s mind,” Bruneau says. And he stresses that even though the videos that use a humanizing approach didn’t work in this paper, it doesn’t mean the approach is hopeless. It’s an enormous task to create a few-minutes-long video that could change someone’s heart.

A final lesson: even experts on behavior often don’t know how to change someone’s mind

The authors of the paper did one final, very interesting thing in their experiments. Before they ran the test on the eight videos, they showed those videos to a wholly different group of 938 participants and basically asked: What do you think will work to change somebody’s mind about collectively blaming Muslims for terror attacks?

Overall, these participants didn’t pick the winning video. They thought a John Oliver rant would help (it actually made things worse). Which goes to show the rants and messages we post to our Facebook walls might not always work to change another persons mind (shocker!).

“The real-world message that I would love for people to take from this is, number one, to be skeptical about your intuitions about what is going to work and what isn’t,” Bruneau says. It might feel good to shame prejudicial people for being hypocrites, or it might feel good to post a rant from a late-night comedian. But take a step back and think: Is this really helping or changing anyone’s mind?

There are some caveats to this work. One is that it was conducted in a series of online surveys. In the real world, you can’t always force someone to pay attention to a video or an activity. And we’re constantly distracted. In her work, Princeton psychologist Levy Paluck finds “watching [an important, alarming news story] with distraction depresses your interest in a topic, even more so than if you have not seen it at all.”

Bruneau is currently working on extensions to the experiment to see if the intervention works in messier real-world settings. But for now, the finding offers a glimmer of hope.