Persuasion and Prejudice among Scientists

One side effect of doing persuasion research is that you tend to become more aware of your own differences, values, preferences, and attitudes. You’re studying how Other Guys change and that always requires a specific TACT which means you’ve got to make your messages about Something. You do the study and see how Other Guys react and inevitably you think about how you’d react to the situation and compare yourself to everyone else. You can’t help but get surprised sometimes as you discover how different you are from everyone else as you see sometimes you react like most, but sometimes you react like only a few. As an embarrassing for instance, I just assumed that everyone, especially everyone in my classes was a crazy High Need for Cognition maniac like I am until I taught the concept and got laughed out of the classroom over my High WATT foibles looking like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory.

Here’s an interesting research article that says less about the topic and more about the researchers than anyone would care to recognize. Psych Science presents a three study package that looks at the relationship between political orientation (liberal vs. conservative) construal type (concrete vs. abstract) for their effect on prejudice toward stigmatized groups, specifically gays, Muslims, blacks, and Latinos. The prediction is that conservatives will show more prejudice toward stigmatized groups in the abstract construal condition compared to the concrete construal condition. And, indeed, this is what the researchers consistently report across the three different lab studies. Consider the results from the first study.

Sure enough, conservatives demonstrate more negative feelings toward stigmatized groups (as measured with the “thermometer” scale of hot to cold) when they engage in concrete construals compared to abstract.

Got a question. What would happen if you ran this study and used the stigmatized groups of: the National Rifle Association, Religious Believers, the 1%, and on and on with all those non-liberal people who are obviously stupid and prejudiced? This question apparently never occurred to the researchers. They sail blissfully into the Discussion.

In conclusion, our results from three studies provide converging evidence that adopting an abstract mind-set (as opposed to a concrete mind-set) can reduce expressions of prejudice toward nonnormative groups, primarily among people who are politically conservative. Study 3 directly demonstrated that the influence of abstract construal on bias is mediated by an increase in the salience of concerns about fairness. Overall, this research brings construal-level theory to bear on the investigation of intergroup relations and opens several avenues for future endeavors to both understand and reduce prejudice.

Executed like this, the research makes the term, stigma, look like the word liberals use to label and libel conservatives over issues of disagreement. Thus, preferences, mere likes and dislikes, become reified as Stigma when all we’re talking about is who’s putting the labels on the rocks that are thrown in the political fight. That’s science?

Consider the possibility that self-identified political liberals just might stigmatize groups like gun owners, religious believers, stay-at-home moms, people with a Southern, rural, or hick accent, NASCAR fans, Fox news watchers, or anyone who eats fried food, fast food, large serving soda, pork rinds, ring bologna, Slim Jims, Twinkies, and finally, anyone who smokes. Yet, this line of scientific thinking does not appear in this work. Stigma, it seems, only works in one direction.

And, when stigma works in only one direction and in a direction congenial to the researcher’s point of view, then that researcher has learned nothing about persuasion or human nature, but merely holds up a mirror to herself and publishes what she sees.