Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Multicultural Experiences Decrease Prejudice

Why does a multicultural experience decrease prejudice?

Prejudice has been in the news quite a bit lately.  Just yesterday, in yet another example of sectarian violence, a terrorist disguised as a worshipper bombed a Muslim holiday service in Afghanistan.  Last night, Republican political strategist and advisor John Sununu suggested that former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for President only because of race and not because of the substance of his policies.

Because prejudice is so pervasive, there has been a lot of interest in understanding factors that might reduce it.  A fascinating paper by Carmit Tadmor, Ying-yi Hong, Melody Chao, Fon Wiruchnipawan, and Wei Wang in the November, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that having a multicultural experience can decrease prejudice.

 For example, in one study, Caucasian-American college students participated in a study in which they were going to have to evaluate resumes of six job applicants.  The resumes were constructed so that two of the resumes were much higher quality than the other four.  The names on the resumes were manipulated, so that half of them had stereotypically White names and half had stereotypically Black names.  The names were randomly assigned to the resumes in different ways for different participants, so any difference in evaluation of the resumes from people with Black and White names has to result from the name and not the quality of the resume.

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 Prior to evaluating the resumes, some participants watched a video that contained images of both American and Chinese culture.  Much previous research shows that watching these videos gives people a greater appreciation of the similarities and differences between American and Chinese culture.  Two other groups of participants watched either a video with only images from American culture or with images only from Chinese culture.

 Participants who saw videos with images from only one culture recognized that some of the resumes were stronger than others, but they generally felt that the strong resume from the person with the White name was better than the strong resume from the person with the Black name.  Those who saw the video with images from both American and Chinese culture evaluated the strong resumes equally, regardless of the name on them.  So, having a multicultural experience decreased prejudice.

 Other studies in this series found that people given a multicultural experience were also less likely to endorse negative stereotypes about groups.

 Why does this happen?

 The researchers suggest that having a multicultural experience decreases peoples Need for Closure. Need for Closure is the extent to which people need to be finished thinking about something.  The higher your Need for Closure, the more that you use secondary sources of information to make judgments.  So, when you are high in Need for Closure, you might focus more on a person’s race rather than the quality of his or her resume when making a hiring decision.

 To demonstrate this possibility, the researchers found that people given a multicultural experience (like watching a video with both American and Chinese images) decreased their ratings on a scale designed to measure Need for Closure relative to those who saw images from only one culture.  Furthermore, these measured differences in Need for Closure were a good statistical explanation for the differences in prejudice found between groups.

 This set of studies is yet another demonstration of the positive effects of having multicultural experience.  The more that you bear in mind the variety of cultures that exist in this world, the better able you are to focus on factors that really matter when making a decision, rather than using secondary characteristics like a person’s race.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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