By Camiel Beukeboom / Reading time: 7 Minutes
Sometimes attempts to do good have adverse effects. Despite our good intentions we may do more harm than good. Some recent campaigns – all aimed at disproving negative stereotypes and prejudices – unfortunately appear more likely to strengthen negative stereotypic associations than to reduce them. Here is why.
I’m black, but I’m not…
One of these campaigns, published by BuzzFeedYellow and widely shared in social media, shows film clips of individuals from various social categories. One film clip shows black individuals, saying “I am Black, but I’m not…”. Another film clip shows homeless individuals saying “I am homeless, but I’m not…” and there are similar film clips about Muslims, Asians, Latino’s, fat people, and more.
The videos present us with Black people saying they are not “aggressive”, “ghetto”, “violent”, “on welfare”, “lazy”, etc. We see homeless individuals saying they are not “evil”, “drug addicts”, “committing crimes”, “homicidal maniacs”, or “trash”; and we see Muslims saying they are not “angry”, “dangerous”, “terrorists”, “hating America”, or “forced to wear a headscarf”.
Now, the tricky adverse effect that the negated messages in these film clips likely produce follows from our research on the negation bias. This research (and other) suggests that negations (as in “X is not aggressive”), are processed as if they were affirmations (i.e., X is aggressive). Even though the link is denied, the message strengthens rather than suppresses thoughts about X being aggressive. Thus, hearing “I am Black, but I am not violent” consequently most likely reinforces a mental association between Black and violent in an audience.
Second, the negated messages communicate what is typically expected for the social category – in other words the apparently existing negative stereotype. Watching the film clips thus teaches these negative associations to people who were still unknowing about them. People who already had (faint) awareness of these associations will have them confirmed.
The attempt to change the stereotypic views occurs in the second parts of the film clips. Here, the same individuals mention characteristics that are stereotype inconsistent (“I am Black, but I am actually …”). They contrast themselves to the generic stereotypic view. This presents them as exceptions to the rule, who happen to have some unexpected other (i.e., positive) characteristics. Unfortunately, this likely conveys that they are outliers; they can be set aside as odd individuals in the context of what everyone stereotypically expects. Such exceptions will more likely have the effect of proving the stereotypic rule in an audience, rather than changing it.
Not a joke (#geengrapje)
This week Dutch minister Jet Bussemaker launched another campaign in the Netherlands aimed at reducing sexism against women. The goal of this campaign says Bussemaker is to create awareness of daily sexism as expressed in denigrating remarks, jokes and ironic remarks. The campaign website (http://geengrapje.nl) presents a film clip in which a number of women provide examples of sexist remarks. These remarks imply that women should smile pretty, be sweet, take care of kids, have their period, serve coffee, become pregnant etc.
Indeed, our research on the irony bias shows that such jokes and ironic remarks have a stereotype confirming and maintaining effect. Just like negations, ironic remarks are most likely used in situations in which a person’s behavior deviates from what is stereotypically expected. For instance when a woman shows dominant behavior in a high status job, an ironic remark (“Well, she sure has a sweet pretty smile”) can function to introduce what is expected for a woman instead. The stereotype expectancies surface in such remarks and thereby have the effect of maintaining them.
The adverse effect of this anti-sexism campaign, however, lies in the fact that it confronts its audience with an abundance of the sexist remarks it actually aims to combat. Consequently, the campaign has the same negative effect as the sexist remarks: it activates and maintains negative stereotypic associations with women.
Moreover, the campaign website explicitly notes that making sexist remarks is very common behavior. Unfortunately, depicting an undesired behavior as occuring very frequently (i.e., the descriptive norm) has been shown to be a strong motivator of human behavior. Simply because people tend to do what many other people appear to do (Cialdini, 2003). To make it worse, the campaign invites people to show the unwanted behavior by sharing examples of daily sexism on social media using a hashtag (#geengrapje; not a joke). The consequence: social media are bombarded with sexist jokes with all their detrimental effects on impression formation of women.
The intended message of the campaign is that we should not make sexists jokes. Yet, simultaneously the undesired and stereotype maintaining jokes are demonstrated to us, and both implicitly and explicitly encouraged.
I realize that the campaigns I discussed stem from good intentions, and they may certainly have positive effects. One positive aspect of these campaigns is that they create awareness of both subtle and blatant forms of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Creating awareness is obviously good, as it may instigate public debates and brings unconscious forms of discrimination to the surface.
It is, however, frustrating to see that these campaigns simultaneously likely backfire to produce the opposite of what they intend to achieve; feeding negative associations. Stereotypes are highly resistant to change. This is partly due to biased language patterns (only some of which I described here) that serve to maintain them. Campaigns aimed at changing stereotypes must therefore be carefully designed in order to prevent potential unwanted and adverse side effects.
Camiel Beukeboom is an Assistant Professor in the department of Communication Science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He is also Program Director of the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences and initiator and editor of the Socializing Science PhD blog. (@camielbeukeboom)
Beukeboom, C. J. (2014). Mechanisms of linguistic bias: How words reflect and maintain stereotypic expectancies (Chapt.). In J. Laszlo, J. Forgas, & O. Vincze (Eds.), Social Cognition and Communication (pp. 313-330). New York, NY: Psychology Press. Link: http://hdl.handle.net/1871/47698
Beukeboom, C. J., Finkenauer, C., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2010). The negation bias: When negations signal stereotypic expectancies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(6), 978-992. Link
Burgers, C., & Beukeboom, C. J. (in press). Stereotype Transmission and Maintenance Through Interpersonal Communication: The Irony Bias. Communication Research. doi: 10.1177/0093650214534975 Link
Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychology, 12, 105-109. Link