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How Hollywood Can Help Reduce Prejudice

New research suggests thoughtful entertainment can help undermine bigotry.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Meryl Streep’s public upbraiding of Donald Trump at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards was another reminder that the entertainment industry has little love for the president-elect. Eloquent statements aside, however, is there anything Hollywood can do to negate the damage done by Trump’s prejudice-fueled campaign?

In fact, there is: Create more shows, movies, and music videos featuring diverse characters who are easy to identify with.

A just-published study provides evidence that this sort of entertainment can be “a powerful way to influence attitudes and behaviors,” one that can help significantly in “reducing prejudices on a broad scale in society.”

Previous research — including a 2015 study that found television’s portrayal of African Americans, gays, lesbians, and working women influenced societal attitudes in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s — has suggested as much. But University of Wisconsin–Madison psychologists Sohad Murrar and Markus Brauer decided it was time to put this notion to a rigorous empirical test, using a group that is currently the subject of much suspicion: Muslims.

In the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, the researchers describe two experiments. The first featured 193 white Americans — a mix of university undergraduates and members of a nearby community.

Participants watched six episodes of one of two sitcoms: Friends (which features an all-white cast) or Little Mosque on the Prairie, which focuses on “a group of Arabs/Muslims residing in a small Canadian town.” The Muslim characters in the latter show “come off as normal people who have flaws and positive attributes, just like everyone else,” the researchers note.

Both before and again after they watched the programs, participants took a series of tests designed to measure both conscious and unconscious prejudice, including a “feeling thermometer” in which they gauged how warm they feel toward Muslims. They retook several of the tests a final time four to six weeks after the main experiment was completed.

In addition, after watching the episodes, participants indicated how involved they got in the story, and the extent to which they liked, felt close to, and felt they knew the characters.

The results: Those who watched Little Mosque “had more positive attitudes towards Arabs, and preferred whites over Arabs, to a lesser extent” than those who watched Friends. They also had lower scores than the Friends group on the Implicit Association Test, which measures unconscious prejudice.

Although this effect diminished somewhat over the following four to six weeks, those who had watched Little Mosque “still had more positive attitudes towards Arabs” at that point.

Importantly, “the more participants identified with the characters from the target out-group, the less prejudice they showed toward that group,” the researchers add. This points to the power of TV comedy to help viewers “understand, to feel similar to, and to feel more connected to” people they don’t necessarily come into contact with in their day-to-day lives.

The second experiment had similarly positive results. It found “exposure to a four-minute music video portraying Muslims as relatable and likable led to a significant reduction in prejudice … and did so to a greater extent than two other well-established prejudice-reduction methods.”

So if the entertainment industry really wants to counter some of the troubling trends precipitated by Trump, its mandate is clear: Continue and expand the effort to produce films and shows with more ethnically diverse casts, by more ethnically diverse creators. And extend that inclusiveness to people of all social classes.

Given the fact we increasingly live in enclaves surrounded by people who are very much like ourselves, TV and movies may be the only way to introduce us to other inhabitants of our diverse nation — and let us understand that these strangers are, in many ways, just like us.