Character  &  Context

Coping with Prejudice: Insights From Mindset Research

Illustration of arms extended skyward in protest, holding signs and megaphones

Holding a sign she couldn’t read, Megan Phelps-Roper stood at her first picket line at age 5, and for the next twenty years joined her Westboro Baptist Church family in spreading hate against groups from Catholics to Muslims to LGBT people. To most people, what Phelps-Roper did sounds biased, and it can be tempting to think of her as a irredeemable.

But according to Aneeta Rattan, there are multiple ways to think about prejudice: one that assumes that it’s permanent, and one that invites change. These ways of thinking, or mindsets, are beliefs that drive motivation, goals, attributions, and reactions, and have important implications for how people decide how to respond to prejudiced statements. In some contexts, it is possible to avoid people who have expressed bias. But in the workplace, people anticipate continuing relationships with the person who expresses bias. Rattan’s research explores how best to cope while negotiating these ongoing relationships with people who express bias.

In these situations, targets of prejudice are faced with a choice: speak up or remain silent. It’s this choice, and the implications for how targets of prejudice cope, that Rattan explores. In her research, women and minorities who spoke up about a coworker’s prejudiced statement (or “confronted” it) felt better about their co-worker, and in turn felt more belonging at work, if they had a growth mindset: a perspective that acknowledged the co-worker’s potential to change.

Rattan cautions that a target of prejudice never has a responsibility to confront. However, confronting can be valuable: it sends a signal to someone who might be oblivious about the prejudice underlying their words. As Rattan puts it, “it’s always the responsibility of the person who expresses bias to change, but people who express bias can vary in how much they know that it’s bias.” In other words, if a well-intentioned person doesn’t know that their statements are prejudiced, then confrontation with a growth mindset can facilitate change.

A single confrontation may not change someone committed to a prejudiced worldview. But as Megan Phelps-Roper, who left Westboro Baptist Church after years of conversations with the people she thought she hated, wonders on Twitter, “If I can learn, who can’t?”

Written By: Liz Redford, doctoral candidate at the University of Florida
Presentation: "Mindsets and Prejudice Confrontation: Boundaries and Benefits of a Growth Mindset," part of symposium, Mindsets about Malleability Shape Intergroup Relations: New Insights and Outcomes, held Saturday March 2, 2018.
Speaker: Aneeta Rattan, London Business School
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