Joshua Gubler, Political Science
Previous research highlights the importance of generating empathy for marginalized outgroups as a precursor to changing negative attitudes and behaviors towards them. Politicians and social activists often seek to generate this empathy by “humanizing” marginalized groups through positive media or interpersonal contact. We have previously shown that such attempts at humanization often fail to change the attitudes of those the humanizing message is designed to influence: those with the most negative attitudes towards the outgroup. We hypothesized that this failure could be attributed to cognitive dissonance, positing that individuals who feel a deep sense of dissonance from the positive information and adopt the dissonance reduction strategy of self-justification, are likely to either exhibit no positive change in attitudes, or a backlash, becoming less positive in their attitudes towards the outgroup.
Our MEG proposal suggested a series of pre-tests, culminating in an experiment using the fMRI, to test our hypothesis. It particularly discussed the advantages of using recent advances in fMRI technology to measure dissonance, as to this point, scholars of dissonance are left using simple selfreport measures for a concept individuals are loathe to self-report.
During the last two years, my collaborators and I have made significant progress in identifying the role of dissonance in resistance to attitude change from humanizing media. Our first task was to create a research design that would separate humanizing media and dissonance, and to create manipulations and measures of each that could be recorded in the very unnatural setting of the fMRI. After many months of IRB delay due to the sensitivity of our research, we began conducting pre-test survey experiments with students and residents of Utah Valley to validate these manipulations and measures. In all, we conducted four different experiments, the last one of these was completed and analyzed last Fall.
Our last experiment, a large panel experiment with 3,624 respondents in the first round, 2,632 in the second round, successfully humanized Hispanic immigrants (the “outgroup”) for our White/Caucasian participants. It also successfully experimentally manipulated dissonance separate from the humanization task. And it did both of these things in a way that we can employ in the fMRI, such that we can now (finally) move with confidence to the fMRI, using the design from this last experiment. The lessons learned and data gathered in the first three experiments were necessary to reach this point.
They were also necessary in clearly identifying the role that dissonance plays in attitude change. The results from this last experiment show that dissonance erases the empathy generated by the humanization task and that those who experience it (and justify it away) are much more likely to support harm towards Hispanics than those who do not. This interaction between empathy and dissonance was not fully foreseen when we started the project, but now features prominently in our research design and in our presentation of the results.
Along the way, we have begun papers on the results from the four experimental pretests and discussed these results with colleagues around the country. Just as importantly, the three research assistants employed by the project have done the same, presenting the results from this research at various conferences, and using the experience and papers from the project to propel them into graduate school.
Just two days ago, we submitted the IRB application to move this research to the lab in preparation for the fMRI experiment. Prior to putting participants in the fMRI, which is quite expensive, we will first replicate our results using galvanic skin conductance measures. We anticipate bringing participants to the fMRI later this semester or at the start of spring semester, at which point we will have fully completed the large project the MEG began to fund two years ago.
As such, to this point, the project has met and exceeded the academic objectives outlined in our original proposal. The results from the pre-tests constitute an important contribution to the study of dissonance and attitude change and will be submitted for publication on their own. We anticipate that the results from the skin conductance and fMRI rounds of the experiments will also produce findings that can be published in the top outlets in political science. The project has also raised new questions that will be the starting point of additional projects on this topic.
We feel the project has also met the high ideals of the mentoring experience the MEG grant hopes to provide to students. During the course of the project, we received research assistance from three undergraduates, one in psychology, one in international relations, and one in political science. These three are:
- Skye Herrick
- Ben Wright
- James Martherus
We involved each of these students in all aspects of the project. During their time in the project, these students meet weekly with the faculty involved (Chris Karpowitz, Quin Monson, and Mikle South). During these meetings, we would discuss the theory and hypotheses driving the research, would collectively work on our research design, and then would agree on assignments for the next meeting. The research assistants took important assignments in stages of the project, including (but not limited to): creating literature reviews; identifying photos for the humanization manipulation; creating the sentences for the dissonance manipulation; putting together first drafts of the IRB proposals; putting together the various survey instruments, recruitment materials, and other components of the research design; analyzing the data from the results; and one of them (James) completed fMRI training along with the faculty members in the group so he can safely assist participants in the fMRI (we all need to renew this training shortly).
Skye and Ben worked for the project during its first year, leaving (for graduation and other opportunities) before we began writing the results from the project. These two used the experience gained in research to assist them in their current endeavors (Skye is now an analyst at Google; Ben is applying for PhD programs). James stayed with the project the entire time. He wrote the first results for the project for his undergraduate thesis, and has recently completed another version of the paper, with our most recent results, that he is using for his graduate school applications for PhD programs in Political Science. Along the way, he presented an early version of our results at the Fulton Conference, and the most recent version of our results a couple months ago at the University of Michigan’s ”Emerging Scholars” Conference, a conference for a dozen undergraduate students the PhD program in Political Science at Michigan would like to potentially admit. Thus, for James, the project has been a launching of what appears to be a long career in research and has been part of opening the door for his potential admittance to the top PhD programs in the country.
For the next stages of the project, we anticipate hiring 4 additional students to assist the faculty involved in the project with running participants in the lab. We began recruiting students today for this, and hope to provide this group with a similar experience to that provided to our original three research assistants.
Of the $20,000.00 received in MEG funding, we have thus far spent roughly $5,000.00, the vast majority of which has gone to student wages. The remainder has gone to payment for subjects (and participation incentives) in our previous experiments, with Chris Karpowitz and Quin Monson contributing funds from their research accounts to cover some of the additional experimental costs. We have budgeted another $2,000.00 for the next phase of the project (skin conductance), and will spend the remaining $13,000.00 on the fMRI, as planned for in the original budget proposal for the MEG grant.
We thank the University for the generous allocation of funds to this research and to the mentoring experience for these students.