Pondering Your Internal Conflicts May Help You Stereotype Others Less

Recently, Chadly Stern and Tali  Kleinman (of NYU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), published a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science detailing how activating a “conflict mindset” in an individual can get them to perceive outgroup members as less dissimilar than they might otherwise believe.  Specifically, across  three separate studies, they found that asking participants to write about a time when two of their important goals conflicted, led individuals to perceive smaller difference in policy preferences when comparing themselves to members of the opposite political party.  Given that exaggerated perceptions of differences with others can lead to “symbolic threat” that worsens inter-group relations, it may be true that considering personal conflicts could be a reasonable way to indirectly reduce inter-group divisions.

From the paper:

In three studies, we examined whether activating a reasoning process that fosters the consideration of alternatives (a conflict mindset) reduces the extent to which individuals consistently overestimate how different outgroup members’ attitudes are from their own attitudes. In Study 1, tacitly activating a conflict mindset reduced the overestimation of outgroup dissimilarity compared to a control condition. Study 2 ruled out the alternative explanation that conflict reduces the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity through diminishing effortful thought. Study 3 showed that a conflict mindset, but not an accuracy incentive, reduced the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity. Additionally, Study 3 demonstrated that reductions in perceived self–outgroup distance explained in part why a conflict mindset attenuated the overestimation of outgroup dissimilarity.

It appears that people’s default tendency is to assume that political outgroup members’ attitudes are more different from their own attitudes than they actually are (e.g., Robinson et al., 1995). We propose that this default tendency can be changed by activating a reasoning process that bridges the perceived distance between oneself and outgroup members. Specifically, we propose that the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity could be reduced by tacitly activating a mindset (i.e., a general mode of processing information; Gollwitzer, 1990) characterized by
the consideration of conflicting perspectives (Nickerson, 2001).

In other recent work, researchers have shown how incorrect beliefs about others can reduce prospective trust and cooperation.  No single method is likely to work in all cases or for all people, but as a tool in the toolbelt of conflict resolution (see this page for more such tools), perhaps greater reflection of one’s own internal conflicts can help bridge some divisions.  If anyone tries this in practice, please do contact us as we would love to document your experiences, positive or negative, such that others can learn from that experience.

- Ravi Iyer