Attitude change, stereotypes and tolerance
Gash H. (2009) Attitude change, stereotypes and tolerance. In: Lasker G. E. & Hiwaki K. (eds.) Personal and spiritual development in the world of cultural diversity. Vol VI.. IIAS, Tecumseh Ontario: 13–20. Available at http://cepa.info/2612
Table of Contents
The consistency seeking system (intra-individual consistency.
Consistency (the intrinsic and the extrinsic)
Self-other systems and attitude change (Inter-individual consistency)
Thoughts can be fleeting and changeable and they may also be rigid. Generally the rigid thoughts are related to self-identity, and concern positions people hold very seriously. In previous conferences I have presented constructivist accounts of how ideas change and how tolerance might be promoted. In the present paper I extend these ideas to include insights into these issues raised in social psychology. Where the constructivist approach emphasised the importance of providing experiences that challenged emerging representations with questions and counter-examples, this paper reviews social psychological approaches that draw attention to the importance of the circumstances of events and the natural inclination to attend initially to personal attributes.
Key words: Attitude change, thinking levels, stereotypes, learning contexts, tolerance
Attitudes play an important role in our self-concepts with implications for our relations with others and are typically defined in psychology as having three components: an emotional component, a cognitive component and a behavioural component. My interest here is to show how a constructivist approach to reduce stereotypes (Gash, 1992) might be developed by insights from social psychology. Cognitive processes and products may be described in Piagetian terms as (1) developing systems that (2) seek to identify regularities in experience using existing ideas in an iterative manner; and (3) these emerging regularities are constrained by intra-individual and inter-individual consistencies. These constraints entail a filtered world-view going some way to explain why stereotypes and associated prejudices are difficult to change. The paper begins with an outline of how the mind learns about schemas and attitudes, and then moves to discuss learning about others before considering how others influence this process. The final section summarises these types of learning to help teachers reduce prejudice and stereotyping.
From a cognitive perspective the mind seeks regularity and does so by means of a capacity to notice differences. This capability is fundamental to survival and is a feature of all living systems. When difference is noticed it is often difficult not to prefer one of the two compared phenomena: so when two groups of people are perceived as different prejudice seems almost inevitable. In explaining this search for regularity in experience, cognitive theories (e.g., Piaget’s theory, 1970) distinguish process and product: the “how” we think and the “what” we think. The “how” is an iterative comparator that doesn’t change over time. The “what” of thought becomes differentiated with time. Having made sense of experience and invented regularities we forget the operations used in making schemas and so forget that this experience could have been framed in other ways. How a person thinks about their thoughts, and in particular their willingness to revisit the way they got the idea, has implications for managing contradiction.
Schemas referring to social groups are stereotypes providing a “snapshot” that ignores group variability. There has been a substantial amount of developmental research on racial prejudice e.g., Aboud and Amato (2001), gender stereotypes (Ruble & Martin, 1998), and children’s attitudes towards children with learning difficulties (Gash, 2004). In these works some attitudinal reactions are seen as automatic responses associated with schemas. Attitudes may also be viewed as low-level thinking (as opposed to more rigorous higher-order thinking) or as heuristics (mental shortcuts).
Gregory Bateson described levels of learning that may be used to explain stereotyping (Gash, 1993a). That was some time ago, and it’s interesting to examine newer more differentiated ways of understanding prejudice. The lowest level of learning (L1) Bateson (1972) described was learning activities or facts. Learning 2 is about learning contexts for L1. Contexts are social, and recognising context confirms the individual in a social position.
Ease of accessibility of some attitudinal schemas is a type of “unconscious thinking” and is part of the reason attitudes can be hard to change. Some people can identify writing errors easily in bibliographies in non-English articles where English names occur but were not familiar to the typist. Errors may “appear” out of text in bibliographies of French or Spanish articles. Similar experiences occur when one hears one’s name across a noisy room. Recent research on unconscious thinking by Dijksterhuis (2004), indicates that for tasks like making decisions about which of four apartments to buy, it is best not to think about the information provided but to do another task (during which the mind works unconsciously on the issue), and then to make the judgment. It seems important to notice that what we attend to is so much less than what is going on in our minds and in our experience.
Cognitive processes also provide ways of taking efficient shortcuts called heuristics. Such heuristics may be efficient and useful from an evolutionary standpoint, but they may be inaccurate and instrumental in the formation of prejudiced ideas. Some heuristics are based on availability, the ease that something comes to mind. Prejudiced ideas about a “different other” come to mind. Other heuristics are based on representativeness where we classify something according to how similar it is to a typical case. Availability and representativeness may play a role in stereotyping where “within group” differences are ignored.
Prejudice depends on powerful associations and recent work on magical reasoning (Nemeroff & Rozin, 2000; and Shweder, 1977) illustrates additional ways the mind makes associations. So for example, wearing something that reminds us of someone may increase their “influence” on us. It is magical in the sense that there is no mechanism for the influence: it is “action at a distance”.
How might one facilitate the emergence of new attitudes or the modification of old ones? In constructivist theory change follows noticing differences that make a difference. In classrooms teachers can facilitate the possibility of noticing differences by asking questions and providing counter-examples. With questions and counter-examples we may provide new associations for schemas to counter representations that are restrictive. However, as we shall see from what follows, people often are resistant to changing their prejudices and find ways to ignore the information that does not fit their stereotypes. I want to suggest it is probably attention itself and how it is directed that is key to system change. Understanding how new attitudes are learned may help teachers and facilitators to change attitudes. Discussion techniques based on redirecting attention through questioning associations based on heuristics like availability, representativeness, and magical influence may help to allow the emergence of more differentiated and less prejudiced thinking.
Children restrict their inclination to be sociable as they grow older and, in common with an earlier study on children’s perceptions of mental handicap (Gash, 1993b), older children viewed inclusive practices more favourably. However, context influenced developmental change too because older children in inclusive classes were more reticent about inclusion than those in regular classes. Fritz Heider, regarded as the originator of attribution theory, drew attention to the way people tend to focus on the person and their personality (internal attribution) and ignore the circumstances in which the person acted (external attribution). Kelley’s (1973) co-variation model is about variation of behaviour across situations in terms of the relative importance of internal and external attributions. For example, to explain how a child is unkind one examines consensus (how do other people behave in this situation?), distinctiveness (how does this person behave in other situations) and consistency (how does the same person act in similar situations across time?). Internal attributions tend to be made when consistency is high (child is mean regularly) and consensus (other children don’t) and distinctiveness (child isn’t mean with classmates) are low. People make external attributions when they are all high. Redirecting attention through questioning about consensus, distinctiveness and consistency may be another way to facilitate attitude change.
The consistency seeking system (intra-individual consistency.
Inconsistency creates discomfort. Piaget talked about the mind’s tendency to want a viable balance between what is known and what is experienced. In their dealings with others, most people want to feel they are reasonable, decent people, making sensible decisions and behaving morally with integrity. Behaving counter to our self-concepts creates discomfort. Dissonance arises when two ideas conflict, however, the most powerful dissonance comes when conflict is related to identity. We can reduce dissonance and maintain intra-individual consistency by:
Changing behaviour, or Justifying behaviour by changing one of the dissonant ideas, or by Justifying behaviour by adding new ideas
A child is mean to another child who is different so how does a teacher introduce dissonance? First, by introducing the idea that this is wrong and emotionally hurtful and that the teacher won’t stand for this in the classroom. What can the child do? Following the options outlined above, the child can reduce dissonance by:
Changing the behaviour by not being mean; Justifying the behaviour by thinking of the other child as less than human; Ignoring the teacher by adding the idea that teachers’ views don’t count.
There are a wide variety of studies showing how consistency can be achieved. Justifying the behaviour by thinking of the other as less than human, rationalising or ignoring new evidence are all more likely to occur when the idea is important to a person’s identity. Arguments about abortion, the death penalty, and animal rights seem to be about stating points of view, rather than being about changing the ideas of the participant debaters. Additional evidence for this view comes from recent MRI data taken during processing of political information (for or against a preferred candidate) that showed reasoning centres were quiet and emotional centres in the brain were active (Westen et al. 2006). The implication being that what was happening was not analysis but rather reorganisation of the existing material.
Consistency (the intrinsic and the extrinsic)
An individual seeking to maintain consistency, then, may attend to the organisation of his or her ideas and to their reorganisation in a way we call rationalising. There are two aspects to coordinate; the intrinsic and the extrinsic. As a general rule, people tend to value things that they have struggled to get. One example of this that has been studied in the laboratory is justifying the effort for achieving a goal. Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) in a classic study got undergraduates to do boring and repetitive tasks for an hour. Then they were asked to spend time persuading another student to do these tasks. When the students were offered 20 dollars to do this (high external justification) they said afterwards that they thought the tasks were boring (low internal justification): when they were offered one dollar (low external justification) they said that the tasks were more interesting.
Bullying can be hard to stop because even if it begins as play, the power deriving from dominating a weaker child may be very rewarding. The greater the threatened punishment in school, the greater is the dissuasive power of the punishment. If we think about this in terms of internal and external experience, the dissonance in the case of the severe threat is based on a powerful external threat. In the case of a weak threat insufficient punishment when the child refrains from beating up the other child, then he needs some justification for refraining – and then hopefully the child turns to internal justification for not bullying. In this case, the problem is nearly solved. If you like, creating contexts for children to construct internal justifications for not bullying is a really constructive way to solve the problem.
Self-other systems and attitude change (Inter-individual consistency)
Teachers wanting to change attitudes can also learn from the following summary of persuasive communication called the Yale Approach (Aronson et al., 2007).
Who – credible and attractive speakers are best. What – people are most persuaded by messages that don’t preach, Two sided arguments are better than one sided ones, if they can dismiss the side of the argument you don’t like! Primacy and recency effects may function depending on the timing To Whom a distracted audience may be influenced more people with low IQ may be influenced more 18-25 year olds are more impressionable
Essentially people are more likely to change their minds when they are motivated to listen, when the speakers are interesting, and when they feel that changing their minds is their own idea! However ways people are influenced to take social positions by outsiders can be sinister and manipulative. Conformity studies have a compelling history within social psychology. Take for example Solomon Asch’s studies of group influence and Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience. Asch showed an individual may be influenced by judgments made by others. In particular, individuals were shown to abandon their own judgments and adopt false judgments made intentionally by others so as not to appear different. The original experiments involved making a judgment about the length of lines, and in conditions where other judges made intentional false judgments, many participants were influenced by these false judgments and agreed that the false judgments were correct. It was easy to conform when the task is difficult and others have provided an answer that appears to be correct. Accepting the judgments of others arises especially when there is a need to be accepted, when others are thought to be experts, and when information is ambiguous (Aronson et al., 2007).
Social influence is greatest when the group is important, close, and big (Aronson et al., 2007). The group has greatest influence if one has no allies in the group. There are important messages here for teachers interested in understanding group influence and in promoting positive attitudes towards a child who is different.
People make sense of their experience in ways that may be flawed. Developmental psychology shows how initial representations of experience become differentiated allowing for a more nuanced understanding of social and physical phenomena. Approaches to this differentiation in psychology have been made from a variety of different viewpoints including learning theories, constructivism, social psychology, and information processing. Beginning from a constructivist approach that emphasised the importance of providing experiences that challenged emerging representations with questions and counter-examples, this paper reviewed some approaches taken in social psychology that provide additional insights into the processes used by learners in forming representations.
While changing stereotypes and attitudes using counter-examples and asking questions so that learners have an opportunity to review their initial representations may be essential, it is equally important to attend to the context so that the learners do not become motivated to hold onto stereotyped views. I think what learners do with their attention is important. Do they attend to their own view or do they think about the opportunity to incorporate another view? In other words do they appreciate that their own views are their own best attempts to understand and that these views might be improved? Adopting responsibility for our own thinking is not automatic. If views are challenged, any individual may feel defensive and so may be motivated to hold onto the existing learned representations. A type of gentle teaching that allows the formation of new associations in relation to target populations, like children who are “different” in some way would avoid challenging learners in ways that reinforce their stereotypes. After all, stereotypes depend in part on learning social contexts in which the learner is a stakeholder.
Social psychology, through the co-variation model and attribution theory, alerts teachers to the tendency to seek consistency first in personal attributes. Careful questioning can help learners to appreciate that people often act in ways that are determined by the circumstances and not by personal attributes. Being aware of the role of consensus (how do other people act?), of consistency (does this person act this way all the time?) and of distinctiveness (is it unusual for people to act this way?) allows the learner to place actions in a broader context than is likely if learners are left unchallenged with attitudes that depend on unexamined associations and mental shortcuts (heuristics). However, ultimately it is the learner who decides to change his or her mind. For teachers to know how to reflect about intrinsic as well as extrinsic influences may be critical to the emergence of more differentiated less prejudiced thought. My belief is that this will facilitate tolerance.
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