Flickr/Ray Wewerka

A new study finds that even brief empathetic encounters can combat stereotypes.

The prejudices we carry against people we perceive as different have been so ingrained in us since childhood that we often don’t even know they exist. Such negative views can lead to explicit or subtle discrimination on the basis of things like race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion. And even if we identify and renounce our biases, they’re incredibly difficult to completely uproot.

But a ten-minute, face-to-face conversation can change views dramatically, a new study in Science finds—especially when someone is encouraged to empathize with the perspective of an individual from a group he or she is prejudiced against.

Here’s how the study’s authors, Stanford University’s David Broockman and University of California, Berkeley’s Joshua Kalla, explain the significance of these findings:

In light of influential theories that depict prejudiced attitudes as highly durable and resistant to change, it is surprising that brief personal interactions with strangers could markedly and enduringly reduce prejudice in a field setting. Rigorous field research has seldom documented brief interventions capable of producing large and lasting reductions in prejudice, leading the present results to represent a rare challenge to these theories.

In 2015, the authors successfully recruited 1,825 registered voters in Miami-Dade county to take an online survey measuring their baseline views towards the transgender population. (Participants didn't know that these surveys would relate to the second part of the experiment, explained below.)

The respondents were then randomly assigned to two groups. Households in the treatment group received an unannounced visit from transgender or cisgender canvassers from LGBT-rights organizations. ("Cisgender" refers to people whose gender presentation matches the sex assigned to them at birth.) The residents who came to their doors were invited to take part in a conversation that lasted roughly ten minutes and “focused on encouraging subjects to actively take transgender people’s perspectives,” the authors explain. Members of the control group, on the other hand, partook in conversations about recycling. After these conversations wrapped up, both groups took four more surveys—the first 3 days later, then others in 3 weeks, 6 weeks, and 3 months.

The outcomes were dramatic. The people who’d spoken to the LGBT-rights activists seemed to show more tolerance towards transgender folk compared to before, and much more so than the control group. (These results were parsed from survey responses to questions on the morality and normalcy of transgender identity. Both groups started out at a similar footing before the conversations took place.)

On average, the people in the experiment group also were also more supportive of an anti-discrimination ordinance that had recently been passed in the city. The term “transgender” was clearly defined for the experiment group, but not for the control; the authors suspect the people in the control group may have been using derogatory terms with negative connotations. In other words, the clarity of language around these issues matters.

The implications of this research are certainly significant for activists fighting anti-LGBT legislations around the country. But the paper also provides a simple, effective potential solution for political polarization: putting a human face on the issue. Here’s how the authors put it:

Over the past century, political campaigns have increasingly relied on mass communication to reach voters. However, facing difficulty persuading a polarizing public with these strategies, campaigns increasingly eschew making the case for their positions and instead focus on rousing enthusiasm of voters who already agree with them. These shifts undermine basic aspirations for democratic discourse. However, these findings suggest that it may be in campaigns’ own best interest to place renewed emphasis on a personal exchange of initially opposing views, even regarding controversial issues and across partisan lines.

About the Author

Tanvi Misra
Tanvi Misra

Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.

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