One of the more embarrassing social situations you can be in happens when someone you are in a conversation with someone you do not know well and they make a racist or sexist comment or joke. In that moment, there is a whole calculus you end up going through. On the one hand, if you do not say anything, you are implicitly endorsing the comment. On the other hand, if you step up and say something, you can create an awkward social situation.
Obviously, there are many aspects of a situation that will affect whether you choose to confront prejudice. For example, if the person making the remark has power over you (like a boss or a customer), then it can be difficult to say something. It can also be more difficult to say something if you are in a group and feel that you are the only one who objects to the comment.
A paper in the July, 2010 issue of Psychological Science by Aneeta Rattan and Carol Dweck suggests that people are also more likely to confront a prejudiced remark when they believe that people can learn to change their behavior. Dweck and her colleagues have done quite a bit of work demonstrating that there are different mindsets that people have about psychological qualities like intelligence and personality. Some people have an entity mindset, in which case they believe that the quality is one that people are born with and that they cannot change. Some people have an incremental mindset, in which they believe that qualities like intelligence or personality can change and adapt.
In one study, Rattan and Dweck measured people's beliefs about personality and classified them as believing that personality is relatively fixed (an entity mindset) or that it is relatively changeable (an incremental mindset). The participants in this study were all members of racial or ethnic minority groups. Later in the study, people interacted in a chat room with someone else who identified himself as a white male (it was actually the experimenter. The discussion in the chat room was supposed to focus on diversity in college admissions. Early on in the conversation, the white male made a comment displaying prejudice. The experimenters were interested in whether the participant would say anything to confront the prejudice. They found that participants were four times more likely to say something about the remark if they believed that personality is changeable than if they believed that it is fixed.
In another study in this paper, the experimenters had participants read an article made to look like it came from Psychology Today that either suggested that personality is relatively fixed or that it is relatively changeable. They read this article as part of a study designed to determine whether the paper would be of interest to high school students. Then, they participated in a second study that they were told was unrelated to the first. In this study, they were asked a number of questions about what they would do if they were in a situation in which someone made a remark displaying prejudice. They rated how likely they would be to confront the individual, to avoid them, and to withdraw from future interactions with them.
The people who read an article saying that personality is changeable rated themselves as more likely to confront the prejudice and less likely to withdraw from future interactions with the individual than people who read an article saying that personality is relatively fixed.
I want to highlight two interesting aspects of these studies.
First, the simple belief about whether psychological characteristics can change has a huge influence on people's behavior. After all, if you do not think that people can change the way they behave, what point is there in confronting their bad behaviors, particularly if that confrontation would come at some personal cost to you? Thus, it is worth recognizing that people frequently change their behaviors when they learn new things.
Second, people's theories about psychological characteristics like personality and intelligence can change. In the last study I described, people read a single article, and that had an effect on their behavior (at least for the duration of the experiment). This result suggests that with some continued support, many people can come to believe that most of their psychological characteristics can be changed.
Follow me on Twitter.