I am so excited because I’ve found research that suggests two evidence-based exercises we can use to reduce our prejudice and increase our connection to others – by using our imaginations!!!
The first is through what psychology researchers call imagined contact theory.
So let’s back up a bit. In 1954 Gordon Allport put forth the intergroup contact hypothesis, which said that contact between groups reduces prejudice. According to Miles and Crisp (2014), there have been over 500 studies that confirm that intergroup contact does reduce prejudice (p. 4).
But depending on contact to reduce prejudice is fraught with problems, especially in the many places in the US that are highly segregated. Personally I’m very leery of advocating anything that asks marginalized people in our society to do more, like make themselves available to prejudiced people for contact, which could be traumatizing if it doesn’t go well. In any case, anti-Black racism, for example, is not a black people problem; it’s a white people problem. We shouldn’t depend on already-marginalized people to fix what’s wrong in us.
Further, while contact can be structured to be positive in the lab or in contact interventions (which have been found by a meta-analysis by Lemmer & Wagner to reduce prejudice), contact and encounters in daily life can be positive or negative. When I imagine a young person from a white small town going to Flint for the first time, well aware of its national reputation as one of the U.S.’s most dangerous cities, I wonder what they’ll make of driving through the “bad neighborhoods” and seeing the boarded-up buildings and seeing African-American people crossing the street in the middle of the road, dodging cars instead of using a crosswalk (if there is one – in fairness, parts of Flint really lack crosswalks). Or hearing gun shots at night. Some experiences can promote prejudice, making it less likely that the young person would pursue and engage in real actual contact, which, again, may go well or poorly. If this young white person encounters an African-American person (or other member of an out-group) in a casual way and it’s not positive, then this negative experience can further cement negative ideas about the out-group through out-group homogeneity (which is part of us-them thinking), deepening rather than reducing prejudice. Since I can imagine any encounter with a person going poorly for reasons that have little to do with prejudice, I worry that this hypothetical young person may get the wrong idea, generalizing from a negative encounter.
So it’s important that intergroup contact is actually positive.
It turns out that psychologists have also been studying imagined contact hypothesis, which is the idea that imagining a positive social interaction with a member of one’s out-group reduces prejudice. Meleady and Segar (2016) explain (and though I usually edit out citations, I’m leaving them in here so that you can see that there are studies to back up the various points they make):
Imagining oneself engaging in a behavior can activate the same neurological responses as the real experience (Kosslyn, Ganis, & Thompson, 2001). This occurs not only on the physiological level (e.g., the eye pupils adjust to imaginary light; Laeng & Sulutvedt, 2014) but also with higher level processing (Barsalou, Niedenthal, Barbey, & Ruppert, 2003). When applied to social situations, mentally simulating a particular social context can increase the accessibility and expression of the relevant attitudinal and behavioral responses similar to those experienced in the context itself (Blair, Ma, & Lenton, 2001; Garcia, Weaver, Moskowitz, & Darley, 2002). Accordingly, the imagined contact hypothesis proposes that simply imagining positive interactions with members of other groups should have many of the same consequences as actually having interactions with members of other groups (Crisp & Turner, 2009). Despite its relatively recent inception, the imagined contact hypothesis has received a great deal of empirical support (for a meta-analysis of over 70 studies see Miles & Crisp, 2014). Imagined contact has been shown to improve attitudes towards a range of target groups. (p.2)
So you can see that the body doesn’t really distinguish too much between real and imagined contact. By 2014 70 studies of imagined contact support have been conducted that support the contention that imagined contact reduces prejudice! Imagined contact can therefore be used in situations where direct contact is unlikely or rare. Imagined contact can also help provide a foundation for and willingness for direct contact. Further, Meleady and Segar (2016) state, “when cross-group experiences do arise, imagined contact will help increase the likelihood that they are cooperative” (p.12). If our hypothetical young person above engaged in imagined contact before coming to Flint, their attitude would likely be a bit more positive and open toward African-American people (or whichever out-group they chose), making the pursuit of contact more likely and laying a more positive foundation for actual contact.
Applying this exercise of imagined contact to myself, I want to imagine a scenario where I’m already relaxed and full of joy – much closer to my best, most open self – so that any encounter would be positive. (Notice here that I’m trying to choose a time when I’ll be at my most open, my most willing to connect. Practicing the loving-kindness meditation I discuss later would help me work on that and may be a good way to prepare for imagined contact.) To really work on my own prejudices, I need to choose a group I really have preconceived notions about and some prejudice against. For me, the best example here is not African-American people (not because I think I’m not racist, but because I’ve worked harder on my racism than I have on other prejudices, so I’ve got farther to go in other areas), but my white country neighbors. It’s so easy to see them as narrow-minded racist people who would rather cast themselves as victims of reverse discrimination than empathize with people a different from them — at least based on the way the majority in my county votes. It’s so easy to see them as stereotypes, even caricatures, instead of opening up myself to their diversity of views and understanding. (And it’s worth asking what I get out of seeing my white country neighbors as stereotypes and caricatures of close-mindedness and selfishness. Let’s not forget that we keep many of our biases because they serve us. After all, ideas of white supremacy serve white people by affirming that white people are superior, which offers some self-esteem and a sense of justified social dominance, which is important to those with high Social Dominance Orientation. So this bias against my neighbors serves me because then they are the source of our society’s racism problems, not me. Also, then, perhaps, I don’t need to go out and actually meet them either because in a way I’ve already decided I know them, when that’s not true at all.) Since I believe that recognizing the equality and humanity of all people is imperative, and I would love to argue, convince, and cajole racists into seeing the humanity of others, I better commit to seeing the humanity of all others, including racist people. At the beach, I could imagine having a nice discussion with pretty much anyone.
Further, instead of just imagining a positive interaction, one can imagine a scenario where one must cooperate with a member of one’s out-group. Meleady and Segar (2016) point out:
It has previously been demonstrated that imagined contact effects can be enhanced when the imagery script includes aspects of cooperation. Kuchenbrandt et al. (2013) asked participants to imagine a scenario in which they worked with a Roma stranger to find some extra chairs so that they could both join a class with no available seats. Adding this cooperative component to the instructions increased the effect of the intervention on prejudiced attitudes compared to a standard positive contact scenario. (p. 14)
So imagining a cooperative scenario with a person one is prejudiced against or who is a member of a group one has preconceived notions about further reduces prejudice toward the group. So in that case I could imagine going to a community event and helping to set up chairs and chatting with a neighbor. Perhaps in the course of that conversation, I could imagine that I learn things about this person that would explain to me why this person is racist (such as being told that a family member didn’t get a job because they weren’t a person of color, a story I’ve heard that at least gives me a reason for resentment toward people of color) or that the person is not racist.
Since we can, let’s all flex our imaginations a bit to reduce our own prejudice!
First, pick out an “other” for yourself, a group you have trouble understanding and tend to stereotype and be prejudiced against. (Come on, if I can admit I have some prejudice against my white country neighbors because I assume they are all racists, then you can admit you have some “others” as well. Most of us do have “others,” of one kind or another – if not marginalized people in our society or non-Western societies in the world, then the racist people who do the marginalizing and oppressing.)
Then, imagine a scenario in which you have a positive encounter – a good conversation – with a member of this group. For deeper outcomes, imagine that you need to cooperate with this person to get something done.
And while we’re busy flexing our imaginations, let’s also do the loving-kindness meditation studied by researcher Emma Seppala and colleagues. Why? Seppala explains the following in a blogpost on loving-kindness meditation:
For one, loving-kindness meditation makes you feel closer to others, even strangers. And this happens not just consciously (as in you noticing that you “feel closer to this person”) but also on a deeper level (in that you automatically react more positively to people). We also found that it increases your feelings of happiness and well-being generally.
They found that doing it increases a sense of connection within the individual and helps people to have more positive outlook on people. They also found great gains in well-being and connection, which is unsurprising considering that lack of connection is one of the most serious risk factors for poor mental and physical health outcomes. Seppala does a great job of discussing the loving-kindness meditation in more detail here.
But the best part is that she offers a guided loving-kindness meditation on the youtube link. (Note: This is a guided meditation, so if you’re worried you cannot possibly hold still long enough to meditate, rest assured: all you need to do is put on some headphones, find yourself a quiet spot for less than 15 minutes and follow Dr. Seppala’s voice.)
I’ve done the loving-kindness meditation three times since Saturday. I have definitely been in a better mood since I started, though I confess that mine is a very unscientific study; I can’t be sure that my better mood is the result of the meditation rather than other things. But having done it several times, I can see why it works to increase connection: first you imagine receiving love, and then, once you’re full, you give it to others. So you’re not trying to connect just using your own resources; you’re already full and imaginatively surrounded by people who love you. The prompt also affirms that the people you choose to give love and good wishes to are “just like you” in their wishes for a good life, which affirms a commonality that disrupts us-them thinking. You could also work on your tendencies to “other” or discriminate against others by choosing a member of your “other” as one of your acquaintances, which is what I’m doing. (Seppala will direct you to imagine loved ones, friends, and acquaintances.) I’ve been working with it, and I really recommend it!
So there we have it: two evidence-based exercises for reducing prejudice and increasing connection that affirm the power of the imagination. Try them out, and tell me how it goes!
Please consider sharing this. I’m so excited by this research! Imagine what the world would be like if a fair number of us started using these tools to imagine good interactions across divisive differences and feel more connected to one another. More than ever, I feel like we can be the change we want to see in the world – starting with our imaginations.
Main References Quoted from that Are Not Available in Links
Meleady, R. and Segar, C.. (2016). “Imagined Contact Encourages Prosocial Behavior towards Outgroup Members.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 1-18.
Miles, E. and Crisp, R.J. (2014). “A Meta-Analytic Test of the Imagined Contact Hypothesis.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 17:1 3-26.