PHILADELPHIA — How Muslims are and should be perceived by the general public after terrorist attacks in which the perpetrators are Muslim often becomes a point of contention in the media, particularly among those on the far ends of the political spectrum. A recent study shows that while getting a person on either side to change his or her perspective is often a lost cause, one method seems does seem to affect those who collectively blame all Muslims for terrorism.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that exposing hypocrisy of theories blaming the entire religion for terrorism not only tends to quiet anti-Muslim sentiment from the right, it may even reduce prejudice to a degree.
Emile Bruneau, director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab for the University of Pennsylvania, studied the communication tactics and patterns utilized by both sides of the political spectrum to find commonalities after terrorist attacks. In particular, Bruneau studied how the political right and left responded to the terrorist attacks in Paris in November of 2015.
“People tend toward sharing empathy-inducing techniques on social media,” Bruneau says in a media release, “because we think that the best way to change someone’s opinion is to pull on their heart strings. However, our research indicates that the best way to change someone’s heart is to change their mind first.”
For the study, researchers gathered 60 real-world video clips that have been used on social media in attempts to tamp down collective blame of Muslims. The researchers narrowed the clips down to eight using psychological principles and showed these clips to 2,000 participants, whose attitudes towards Muslims were also assessed for the research.
Of the clips used, the one that was most effective at reducing collective blame was an Al Jazeera interview with activist Linda Sarsour, who compared blaming all Muslims for terrorist attacks to blaming all Christians for the actions of the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church.
While accusing people of hypocrisy will cause a “defensive backlash,” according to Bruneau, helping them realize their hypocrisy on their own is much more effective.
To be sure, Bruneau conducted an additional study in which participants read a bio on Dylan Roof, the white supremacist who gunned down nine African-Americans inside a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015. Participants were then asked whether or not they felt all white Americans were responsible for Roof’s actions. The same activity then continued using bios of white supremacist killers Anders Breivik and Wage Page.
Researchers then showed partciipants bios of individual Muslims. Participants were polled on how much they felt each Muslim was responsible for the Paris attack and how responsible all Muslims were for a single person’s acts of terror. They found that the number of people in the group who blamed all Muslims for terrorism was half that of people in the control group.
“Although the conventional wisdom is that attitude change is difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain,” says Bruneau, “these interventions suggest that when people are provided with the awareness of their own inconsistencies and the tools to change their minds, they can readily do so.”
The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.