Allison Skinner Ph.D.

Catching Bias

Attitudes About Others Can Be Contagious

Research shows that people can catch attitudes from the people around them.

Posted Aug 08, 2020

Imagine walking into your new workplace on the first day. As you get to know your new co-workers, you see that people do not seem to be as friendly with Steve. Although nobody actually says anything to you about Steve, might the subtle difference in the way they treat him impact your attitudes toward Steve?

Most of us like to think that our attitudes about others are based on our own thoughtful character assessments. We do not like to think that our attitudes are merely a reflection of the attitudes of our peers. But maybe they are.

To examine whether people can "catch" attitudes, my colleague Sylvia Perry and I conducted a series of studies looking at how our attitudes are impacted by the attitudes of people around us.    

In these studies, we asked adults to watch silent videos of social interactions between two people. Some of the adults saw Person A responding to Person B in a warm and friendly way, but other adults saw Person A responding to Person B in a more cold, unfriendly way. But, regardless of how person B was treated, they always behaved neutrally. So this means that the way Person B responded in the interaction was unrelated to whether Person A responded warmly or coldly to them

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Across all three of our studies (and over 1,000 research participants), people liked Person B better when Person A was warm and friendly to them. This means that people tend to favor a person who was treated better by others over a person who was treated worse.    

We also were interested in whether people realized that this happened. Do people know that they judge others based on how they are treated? Our studies suggested that they don’t. The majority of our research participants reported that the way Person B was treated in the video had no influence on their attitudes towards Person B. 

Instead, most of the participants believed that they liked (or disliked) Person B because of how Person B had behaved in the video. This is even though we edited the videos to make sure that Person B behaved in exactly the same way, regardless of how they were treated by others. 

So our research suggests that we judge people based on how other people treat them and we don’t realize that we are doing that.   

This research shows that people can watch others interacting and conclude that people who are treated better not only are better, but also deserve to be treated better. This can reinforce biases and prejudice. Perhaps by bringing these tendencies to light we can begin to develop strategies to work against them. So the next time you find yourself liking or disliking someone you don’t even know, maybe take a moment to ask yourself why and make sure that you aren’t being biased. 

This post will also appear on the Character & Context Blog for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. 

References

Skinner, A. L. & Perry, S. (2019). Are attitudes contagious? Exposure to biased nonverbal signals can create social attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219862616

Skinner, A. L., Olson, K. R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2019). Acquiring group bias: Observing other people’s nonverbal signals can create social group biases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000218

Skinner, A. L., Meltzoff, A. N. & Olson, K. R., (2017). “Catching” social bias: Exposure to biased nonverbal signals creates social biases in preschool children. Psychological Science, 28, 216-224. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797616678930