Watching others' biased behavior unconsciously creates prejudice

July 7, 2024

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Watching others' biased behavior unconsciously creates prejudice

We unconsciously form prejudice toward groups when we see biased people interact with members of a group. That is according to new research by a team of psychologists who show for the first time that observational learning is an important mechanism of prejudice formation. Their results were published in Science Advances.

What the researchers say: “What we found in our research is that prejudice can form by merely observing other people’s social interactions,” the lead author explained. “When an observer views a prejudiced person’s interaction with a group member, they unconsciously form the same prejudice. Moreover, because observers are unaware that they picked up this bias, they go on to act with prejudice in their own behavior.”

This mechanism helps to explain how societal prejudices spread so easily, for example, through the viewing of TV programs, YouTube or other social media where biased interactions towards particular groups takes place. By merely observing those interactions, vicariously and with no direct contact, people may take on the same prejudices.

During the experiments, a research participant viewed interactions between an actor and members of two different groups. Across participants, the actor varied in prejudice, but the behavior of group members was always identical. When observers later interacted with the same group members, they showed a preference in line with the actor’s prejudice. Moreover, observers were unaware that they were influenced by the prejudiced actor; instead, they believed the behavior of the group who interacted with the prejudiced actor, was worse, even though the members of both groups acted the same.

“A troubling implication is that, because the observer believes that their preference is based on objective evidence, they have no reason to question it or control it,” the researchers concluded.

So, what? This is an important study which explains a lot about some of our more problematic behavior, and the power of social and other visual media.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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