BYU study finds political messages don’t combat prejudice


A popular politician’s tactic to sway voters turns out to be unsuccessful, according to a new BYU study. Researchers have found that political messaging videos that are intended to humanize different groups of people ultimately do little to combat prejudice.

How the study was carried out

The study, which was published in the Journal of Politics, looked at 3,498 Republicans living in the western United States. The researchers surveyed their views on Latino immigrants before showing them footage from a documentary that offers a realistic picture of their lives.

BYU News reported that after participants viewed clips from the documentary, they were more likely to be empathetic toward immigrants only if they had a kinder view of them before viewing the film.

The researchers surmised that one of the components that prevented participants who were already “ill-disposed” toward immigrants from feeling empathy was the uncomfortable feeling people have when they realize their beliefs or worldview are incorrect. This feeling is described by researchers as dissonance.

“Dissonance challenges our sense of identity and most people are loathe to pay the cost of dealing with it. We wonder if, when the documentary convinced them that immigrants were human and not just stereotypes, some participants felt uncomfortable, and their discomfort overrode the empathy they might otherwise have developed,” said BYU political science professor Joshua Gubler.

Second phase of the study

The first part of the study was followed by a second experiment, in which the researchers had 1,982 participants look at “heartwarming pictures of Latino people” and asked them to check whether they had changed their beliefs when viewing those pictures. Then, half of the participants were told that the immigrants were documented and the other half were told that they were undocumented. To see if this affected their beliefs, participants confirmed in writing that they “agree with a list of statements that describe positive attributes of immigrants.”

The researchers found that people with higher animosity toward immigrants at the start were three times more likely to show dissonance after completing the study and were less likely to feel empathy after viewing the images.

How These Findings Could Affect Policy

These findings may change the way politicians try to activate their base and influence independent voters.

“Humanizing messages have been the main focus of activists to reduce prejudice around the world, in conflict resolution groups, documentaries and refugee organizations,” said Gubler.

If people are not motivated to change their views through media messages due to dissonance, politicians will have to find another way to influence voters.

“People think they’re being effective, but that’s because they’re preaching to the choir, and the choir responds appropriately,” Gubler said. “There is value in building a base, but that is different from changing the minds of those for whom the messages are intended.”


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