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Post No.: 0694members


Furrywisepuppy says:


What we naturally do whenever we meet someone new is craft a mental story about them based on the way they dress, how they talk, the identities they hold, etc.. And it’s automatic for us to fill in the blanks with what we think are the most likely and coherent assumptions. Stereotypes are a useful way to categorise and predict the world so that we have an idea about how to react to someone or something who or that is similar to whom or what we’ve seen before. But they are a barrier to greeting new people with an open mind because we’ve already made up our minds about them based on first impressions.


The media (e.g. the news, entertainment shows) can sometimes be the only way we get exposed to certain social groups we don’t come into contact with in our real life in order to learn about them. But the media is generally skewed to give more airtime to extreme individuals or to exaggerate fictional characters because they’re more attention-grabbing, and these depictions can shape the stereotypes we hold (e.g. if we keep watching dramas where those with physical deformities play the villains, we’re going to believe that everyone with physical deformities are creepy). All groups therefore need positive representation in the media. And if we want to change our cognitive stereotypes then we must change our media habits to seek and promote more counter-stereotypical information, or at least recognise and label stereotypes as being stereotypes when we see them. (We should also point them out and explain how they’re problematic to any children watching those shows.)


Because we’re more likely to stereotype members from other groups, and assume that outgroup members are more homogenous, than our own – we should interact more with, and hopefully befriend, those from outside our groups. Superficial acts like merely eating their culture’s cuisine once a week or going on holiday to their country aren’t really enough; unless you really interact with the locals, get to know individuals and get past the cultural stereotypes. (You should discover that most Mexicans aren’t wearing sombreros and almost no Dutch people are wearing clogs for example!) Make a deliberate effort to search for and listen to media personalities and sources who and that represent a different perspective or cultural background than yours (e.g. someone from a different faith or class).


On the one paw, people aren’t unique for they all belong to the same species and may share other identities and values. On another paw, each individual is unique and should be viewed and treated as three-dimensional individuals rather than according to the perceived stereotypical caricature of their social group identity. The idea that group membership determines innate qualities is called ‘essentialism’ (e.g. that skin colour determines someone’s intelligence and character). But we can ‘individualise’ (as opposed to deindividualise) someone by caring to learn their name and something specific about them. Try imagining what their individual likes or dislikes might be (e.g. what their favourite vegetable, animal or book might be?) Try to avoid questions that can elicit cultural stereotypes though. You don’t have to guess correctly – the point is to consider them as an individual with individual quirks and tastes. Even better would be to directly ask them.


If we can be more mindful and aware of our thoughts, emotions and actions, rather than mindlessly acting upon them, we can be aware of our automatic assumptions like when we apply cynical stereotypes and prejudices upon others. Mindfulness may therefore help reduce our unconscious biases. This can be practised via meditation. We can train to slow down and react less impulsively, which can also mean we become more thoughtful and calm in the face of what others might say.


Those who harbour racial fears and prejudices obviously feel stressed around those of other ethnicities. And chronic stress is bad for one’s health. Hence reducing one’s own prejudices will improve one’s own health! Bi-directionally, we’re less prejudiced when we’re in a good mood too. When we’re feeling happy or when we’re laughing, we’re more relaxed, we ultimately feel less threatened and will therefore overlook any boundaries that divide groups.


Affective empathy is beneficial when it comes to feeling sympathy and compassion for others. However, it doesn’t always lead to a tolerance towards those we disagree with when our empathic concern comes with heightened negative feelings, because it might lead us to shut off from or censor those who make us feel bad. This can in turn increase group polarisation and intolerance instead of decrease it. We also biasedly show more affective empathy towards members of our ingroup than members of outgroups or people who seem very different to us – so if our ingroup is being attacked by an outgroup, our emotional empathy may lead us to defend our ingroup by attacking the outgroup instead of trying to understand the point of view of the latter. So cognitive empathy fares better in these scenarios – this involves the more deliberate and intellectual work of considering the viewpoint of our opponents instead of acting on our gut responses, even if we hold no emotional warmth towards them. The aim isn’t to feel what they’re feeling but to try to understand why they feel the way they do.


The ‘contact hypothesis’ suggests that positive experiences of contact with or exposure to diversity (e.g. majority and minority group members mixing together) can reduce prejudice if the members strive for a common goal and as equals. A mixed sports team achieves this at a small scale. The mixing and working together diminishes the feeling of ‘us versus them’ and increases the furry feeling of ‘us and us’.


The ‘parasocial contact hypothesis’ suggests that we can have one-sided interactions with media figures, and when we have positive experiences with such figures who belong to groups outside of our own, we can start to feel better about that group as a whole. For example, you may never have seen a transgender person before in real life but the more we see transgender people on TV, the more we’ll get accustomed to them and may shift our views about them. The media can also facilitate vicarious contacts as we witness members of our own social group interacting with members of another group.


And the ‘extended contact hypothesis’ suggests that even knowing that a member of your ingroup is friends with a member of an outgroup can lead you to having more positive feelings towards that outgroup as a whole.


This shows that we can feel a greater connection and warmth towards others even if we cannot have a direct face-to-face physical contact with them. Online virtual chats can therefore be a good first step. There even exists research that shows that simply imagining a positive interaction with an outgroup member can lead to attitude change. In-person contact still creates the strongest connections though.


Inter-group contact, or positive interactions between members of different groups – be it along racial, ethnic, religious, political or other lines – might be the most important key for bridging differences. (Post No.: 0511 has more on bridging differences.) Getting to know each other better is a fundamental way of reducing misperceptions and biases. Meeting others humanises them, which normally creates warmer feelings towards them. We’ll start to see them as individuals instead of homogenous too. Woof!


But the difficulty is getting people from opposing groups to want to spend any time together in the first place. One reason is ‘homophily’ or the tendency to gravitate towards others who look like us, think like us, have the same background as us, and so forth. It’s less intimidating or exhausting, and there’s less chance for awkwardness, disagreement or conflict, to hang around others who are similar or familiar to us. Segregation therefore naturally results.


Another reason is the way how social networks built on homophily naturally reinforce the similarity upon which they’re built – how, once we’re surrounded by similar people, we’ll naturally end up bumping into fewer people who are dissimilar to us. So if you were, for instance, born white then you’ll likely have been raised in an already predominantly white neighbourhood. Online social media platforms also recommend whom to follow based on the similarity to whom you’re already following.


Fear or anxiety is yet another factor – marginalised individuals may not feel safe around those who marginalise them, whilst majority group members may worry about being pigeonholed as small-minded if they say or do the wrong things around minority group members. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy effect as a result of how we openly or subtly behave around each other. For example, if we’d rather walk on the opposite side of the road to members of another group in order to avoid them, they’ll read this as evidence of our bigotry – the conclusion that we feared in the first place. We also underestimate how members of other groups (or strangers in general) are open to a more-than-cursory interaction with us, as well as underestimate how connected and happy they and we would feel afterwards. So the awkwardness is overestimated. Once again, this can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy as members from both sides read the avoidance from each other as evidence that the other side isn’t interested in them.


When you’re surrounded by likeminded people (e.g. because you’ve been born and raised in a particular country with a particular culture), you may end up assuming that you hold the majority view about how a ‘correct’ culture should be. But if you get to live in another country with a different culture for some time (perhaps one with a much larger population than your home country), you should hopefully start to see that your own core beliefs, values or perspectives aren’t the ultimate or only truth, and that humility is thus required. A person who emigrates from that (more populated) country to live in your home country may get mocked by others from your home country for being an ethnic minority member and for having peculiar traditions or ways of doing things. But from this more global perspective, it could be that those from your own home country are in fact in the global minority and should therefore be the ones to be viewed as having the more bizarre customs – if we are to judge which traditions are ‘weirder’ in the world than the other.


When diverse groups are geographically close together yet inter-group trust is low, the reason isn’t the diversity but the segregation between the groups at a more local level. Therefore close proximity without contact will reinforce negative attitudes and distrust. So inter-group contact requires an intentional desire to connect, plus a great deal of effort as well as courage. We then need to somehow ensure that groups don’t re-segregate.


However, even if they and we meet – if the meeting is mishandled then it can reinforce the negative feelings, the negative generalisations of ‘them lot’ or the feeling of ‘see, I told you so’; which will drive the groups further apart. So the contact hypothesis requires the right conditions – the groups must be of equal status, they must have common goals, and they must cooperate (rather than compete) to achieve those goals. It mightn’t be necessary to have all these conditions in place but they’re interrelated. Such interactions should also preferably have the consent or approval of a recognised authority figure, like a political leader or teacher, who could affirm the equal status of the parties and facilitate and legitimise the contact. (Authority figures who stoke divisions, meanwhile, produce the opposite effect by legitimising the disharmony and inter-group prejudice.) Sensing the potential that you could be friends with them will bring positive outcomes – this can be encouraged by exploring your similarities, having a laugh together, or reciprocally sharing small details about oneself to each other.


Well all friends were strangers at one point.




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