How campaigns for the good can adversely strengthen negative prejudice and stereotypes.

camiel photoBy 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”.

black but not aggressiveNow, 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.

#geengrapjeThe 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.

Resisting stereotypes

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.

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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)

 

References

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

Using a cliché title or not using a cliché title: Or how to repel potential readers

camiel photoBy Camiel Beukeboom / Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Using a good title for your academic paper is very important to attract interested readers. Yet, quite often titles are uninformative and/or anything but attractive. Authors often manage to formulate a “completely ineffective title (…) that repels and puts off potential readers” apparently “to ensure that as few as possible are motivated to look beyond the title to the abstract, or the full text.” (Writing for Research, 2014). I like to focus on one excellent way to formulate a repulsive title: Namely to use the most annoying cliché title imaginable – that is, anything derived from the Shakespearean phrase “to be or not to be – that is the question”.

In order to test my disquieting suspicion how badly milked this title really is, I ran some searches in Google Scholar and Web of science. This revealed an impressive prevalence of Shakespearean titles. keep-calm-and-to-be-or-not-to-be-3 Searching Google scholar for “Or not to” in titles resulted in 12,900 hits. The same query in Web of science revealed 11,487 titles. Moreover, many titles include the “that is the question” part in the title. Google scholar gave 1,830 hits including it, and web of science gave 1,662 “that is the question” titles. I even found 1160 hits in Google scholar for titles including the whole shebang (i.e., the combination of “or not to” and “that is the question”).

Based on my rough search I will now provide you with some easy ways to also include the marvelous Shakespearean to-be-or-not-to-be phrase in your title:

1. Simply replace “be” with whatever is the topic of your paper. To give you some (recent) examples:

To date or not to date, that is the question: older single gay men’s concerns about dating. Suen, Yiu Tung (2015). Sexual And Relationship Therapy.

To reheat, or to not reheat: that is the question: The efficacy of a local reheating protocol on mechanisms of cutaneous vasodilatation. Del Pozzi, Andrew T.; Hodges, Gary J. (2015). Microvascular Research.

To pill or not to pill in GnRH antagonist cycles: that is the question! Garcia-Velasco, Juan A.; Fatemi, Human M. (2015). Reproductive Biomedicine Online.

To Drink or Not to Drink: That Is the Question. Rubin, Emanuel (2014). Alcoholism-Clinical And Experimental Research

To fractionate or not to fractionate? That is the question for the radiosurgery of hypoxic tumors. Toma-Dasu, Iuliana; Sandstrom, Helena; Barsoum, Pierre; et al. (2014) Journal Of Neurosurgery.

2. If possible you could also add your topic of investigation behind “be”:

To be or not to be… stationary? That is the question. DE Myers (1989). Mathematical Geology.

To be or not to be (challenged), that is the question: Task and ego orientations among high-ability, high-achieving adolescents. DY Dai (2000). The Journal of Experimental Education.

Optimized microphone deployment for near-field acoustic holography: To be, or not to be random, that is the question MR Bai, JH Lin, KL Liu (2010). Journal of Sound and Vibration.

To be or not to be humorous in class—That is the question. V Kothari, DS Rana, AS Khade (1993). Journal of Marketing Education.

Phytosterols: to be or not to be toxic; that is the question. G Lizard (2008). British Journal of Nutrition.

3. If the above does not fit to your topic, don’t worry. The easiest thing to do, is to just attach the to-be-or-not-to phrase to whatever is the topic of investigation. This works always, even if there is no apparent particular relevance:

The role of bone marrow biopsy in Hodgkin lymphoma staging: “To be, or not to be, that is the question”? M Hutchings (2012). Leukemia & Lymphoma.

To be, or not to be: Paradoxes in strategic public relations in Italy. C Valentini, K Sriramesh (2014). Public Relations Review.

The metabolic syndrome: To be or not to be, that is the question. PJ Grant, DK McGuire (2006). Diabetic Medicine.

To Be or Not to Be, That is the Question: Contemporary Military Operations and the Status of Captured Personnel. GS Corn, ML Smidt – Army Law (1999). HeinOnline.

To be, or not to be, that is the question: Apoptosis in human trophoblast. R Levy, DM Nelson (2000). Placenta.

To be, or not to be, that is the question: an empirical study of the WTP for an increased life expectancy at an advanced age. M Johannesson, PO Johansson (1996). Journal of Risk and Uncertainty.

And finally, if you still did not succeed. Just stick to the “to-be-or-not-to” phrase without adding anything significant. This example is particularly nice, with its frisky quotation marks around “be”.

Editorial: To “be” or not to “be”: that is the question. CT Frenette, RG Gish (2009). The American Journal of Gastroenterology

The above examples unfortunately do not cover all. The list goes on and on. For me, scrolling through the lists linked above simultaneously evoked subtle seizures of helpless laughter and a strong sense of discomfort. The lack of creativity is really disturbing. So please, please for my wellbeing, but also for your own good, take my advice and stay away from Shakespearian titles. These cliché titles do not leave a great impression about the author’s sense of creativity. Neither does it augur much about the content of the paper. I will certainly not read it and definitely not cite it. Because even before I start reading the abstract I will have turned away in aversion and vicarious shame.

Reference

Writing for Research (2014). Why do academics and PhDers carefully choose useless titles for articles and chapters?: Six ways to get it wrong, and four steps to get it right.

Camiel Beukeboom is an Assistant Professor in the department of Communication Science at VU University 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)