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Warm Memories Can Dampen Hatred of Outsiders

New research finds aggressive attitudes can be shifted by recalling moments of intimate connection.
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(Photo: PathDoc/Shutterstock)

(Photo: PathDoc/Shutterstock)

At a time when "deport the immigrants" is an increasingly popular position, it's clear that animosity toward perceived outsiders remains a powerful driver of political attitudes. If you step back and identify the underlying emotional foundation of this problematic mindset, the answer is obvious: fear and insecurity. "Those people" are perceived as a threat to "my people."

But not everyone is equally fearful and insecure. As psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth pointed out decades ago, healthy emotional functioning depends in large part on the presence of a loving, supportive figure one can depend upon. Such a figure gives a child the courage to explore, and helps establish a sense of security that can last a lifetime.

While this issue has eaten up countless billable hours in psychologists' offices, it seldom gets mentioned in relation to racial or ethnic prejudice. But newly published research provides evidence that the two problems may be intimately connected.

This study provides important evidence that intimate memories can be used to modify aggressive thoughts and behaviors based on fear and insecurity.

The new study finds instilling a sense of interpersonal safety, by having people recall a time when they felt close and connected to someone else, reduced both negative emotions and harmful behavior toward perceived outsiders. As opposed to the usual prejudice-reduction techniques, such as trying to get people to see what "we" have in common with the feared "them," this method attempts to short-circuit the fear that so often leads to aggression. In the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the University of Michigan's Muniba Saleem leads a research team describing four studies that suggest this approach holds great promise. One study featured 278 people from the University of Michigan community who were given the opportunity to hurt counterparts from a rival school (Ohio State) at no cost to themselves.

Participants first filled out surveys indicating their general proclivity toward attachment anxiety and avoidance of close relationships. They were then asked to visualize and describe one of two people. For half, this was someone "who loves and accepts you in times of need." For the others, it was someone "who lives in your neighborhood, but you do not know well."

They were then introduced to a series of puzzles and asked to assign 11 of them to an Ohio State student. If that student completed all the puzzles within 10 minutes, he or she would win a $25 gift card, but the University of Michigan students could make that outcome far less likely—by assigning their counterparts more difficult puzzles.

The researchers found those who had thought about the close, loving personal relationship were significantly less likely to assign difficult puzzles. The memory of secure attachment reduced the tendency to harm out-group members, or members of a different group.

Importantly, this effect was restricted to participants who strongly identified with their in-group (in this case, the University of Michigan community). This is welcome news, since people whose identity is strongly aligned with their group (often their nation or religion) are more likely to perceive outside groups as threatening, and view aggression against them as justified.

Another study featured 264 Americans recruited online. Participants were asked to recall one of three scenarios: A time when "someone close to them was available, supportive, and loving"; a "typical, uneventful workday"; or "a time when they accomplished a meaningful goal." They then reported their feelings regarding the terrorist group ISIS, using words like "angry," "disgusted" and "fearful."

Finally, all participants indicated their support for "10 militaristic and aggressive policies intended to counter terrorism," such as "I think it is OK to bomb an entire country if it is known to harbor ISIS terrorists."

"Participants exposed to a secure attachment were less likely to support military and aggressive measures against ISIS members," the researchers report. Thinking about a time when one felt emotionally secure also "significantly reduced negative stereotypes (and) negative emotions," they write.

The researchers add that this effect cannot be traced simply to an increase in positive mood. If that were the case, those participants who thought about accomplishing an important goal would also respond less aggressively. They did not.

Saleem and her colleagues concede that much work needs to be done to establish the limitations of the dynamic they demonstrated. For one thing, it seems unlikely to have any effect on people who have never experienced close, healthy relationships, and thus have nothing in their emotional background to work with.

But their study provides important evidence that intimate memories can be used to modify aggressive thoughts and behaviors based on fear and insecurity. Once again, they show that the political really is personal.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.