Can Watching TV Reduce Prejudice?
Recent experiments suggest that the answer is: Maybe, a little.
Posted Feb 22, 2021
Decades of psychology research have found that one of the best ways to reduce intergroup prejudice is simply to have members of different groups spend time with each other (under certain conditions). This idea, known as the contact hypothesis, has been tested extensively and shown to be consistently effective, making it something of a gold standard for prejudice reduction.
But for many, intergroup contact is rare. The fact is, for better and for worse, we tend to spend time with people who are similar to us. As a result, for some people, the only prolonged exposure they get to members of certain minority groups is through characters in TV and film. But could this kind of exposure be a substitute for real-life contact, providing some of the same prejudice-reducing benefits? A number of researchers have started studying this question in the past few years and the answer appears to be: Maybe, a little?
There are a number of studies reporting correlations between watching shows about members of stereotyped groups and reduced prejudice. But it's hard to know if watching these shows actually reduces prejudice or if less-prejudiced people are just more likely to watch them. That's why experimental studies that actually compare groups of people who do and don't watch are critical for answering this question.
One of the most recent studies to attempt this was published in 2020 by Bradley Bond. Bond had 108 heterosexual college students complete a questionnaire about their attitudes toward gay people. He then split them into two groups: one group (the control) did nothing; the other group watched episodes of Queer as Folk weekly for 10 consecutive weeks. At the end of the 10 weeks, everyone completed another questionnaire to see if their attitudes had changed. Bond found that the control group's attitudes remained unchanged and that the Queer as Folk group's levels of prejudice decreased.
Bond's samples were small, there were only 36 people in each group with two different Queer as Folk groups, and the results conflict with those of a 2016 study by Traci Gillig and Sheila Murphy. In their study, 362 heterosexual/cisgender and 107 LGBTQ subjects between 13 and 21 either watched nothing or a 10-minute montage from the show The Fosters about two gay characters. The researchers found that watching the video increased pro-LGBTQ attitudes for the LBGTQ subjects (to an average of 4.2 on a 5-point scale, compared to an average of 3.9 for those who didn't watch the video), but that it decreased pro-LGBTQ attitudes for the heterosexual and cisgender subjects (to an average of 3.0 compared to an average of 3.3 for those who didn't watch the video).
One key difference between their study and Bond's study was that the subjects only watched a 10-minute video, not a full episode. Suffice it to say, this isn't exactly how people normally watch TV. And just like you wouldn't expect to really get to know someone in person in only 10 minutes, this probably wasn't enough time for viewers to really identify with and relate to the characters in the way that you can when you watch a full season of a show, like subjects did with Queer as Folk in Bond's study.
The best evidence so far: Reducing anti-Arab prejudice
Perhaps the best-designed experiment so far to test this question was published in 2017 by Sohad Murrar and Markus Brauer. They looked at prejudice toward Arabs and Muslims after watching Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian sitcom about a Muslim community in a small town in Saskatchewan. They split 193 white adults, ranging in age from 18 to 60, into two groups: half watched six episodes of Little Mosque and half watched six episodes of Friends. They rated their feelings toward a number of groups, including Arabs, before and after watching, and again four to six weeks later.
The researchers found that subjects' feelings toward Arabs became more positive by an average of about 6 points on a 100-point scale in the group that watched Little Mosque (there was virtually no change for the Friends group) and this change persisted weeks later. This group also showed significantly less implicit bias against Arabs than the Friends group, as measured by the Implicit Association Test.
Given the large sample size, realistic presentation, and multiple measures of prejudice, Murrar's and Brauer's experiment provides the most compelling evidence for the prejudice-reducing benefits of watching TV. But their experiment still suffers from a limitation that all of these experiments have: It's possible that subjects in the Little Mosque condition could have guessed the purpose of the experiment and changed their responses accordingly. Despite the researchers' best efforts, it's hard to hide the fact that your study is about attitudes toward Muslims or gay people when you explicitly ask about them and then have people watch a bunch of episodes of a TV show featuring Muslims and gay people.
Do small effects matter?
In sum, evidence for the prejudice-reducing benefits of watching TV is weak but positive. Even Murrar and Brauer only found an average shift of 6 points on a 100-point scale. Of course, no one would expect that watching a few episodes of Queer Eye would turn a bigot into a champion for gay rights.
Even if the effect is small, in this case, it isn't necessarily a meaningless one because TV's reach is so massive. The summed effect on millions of viewers might be a substantial and measurable shift in public opinion.
That's one reason why increased diversity and representation on TV and in movies can be so impactful. According to the 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, the representation of minority groups on TV has been increasing steadily for years.
This is not only great news for many actors who now have opportunities they didn't have before but potentially for society at large.