Character  &  Context

Reaching the Heart by Changing the Mind: Reducing Anti-Muslim hostility Through a ‘Wise’ Socratic Activity

Illustration of a personified heart and brain reaching for each other, swinging from a trapeze

In 2015, Muslim extremists launched an attack in Paris, killing 130 people and wounding hundreds of others. In the days that followed, my social media feed – courtesy of my liberal friends – was ablaze with memes, musings, admonishments and videos that were aimed at countering the anticipated backlash against innocent Muslims that we all knew would follow. My friends’ responses anticipated a particular calculus of intergroup conflict: One group collectively blames all individuals from the other group for the transgressions of individual outgroup members, and therefore feels legitimate exacting their revenge upon any member of the outgroup. We have seen this play out repeatedly over the last 15 years. On one side, Muslim extremists cite transgressions by the U.S. overseas as justification for killing innocent American civilians, and on the other side, Americans blame all Muslims for these attacks by Muslim extremists, which can fuel a spike in hate crimes against innocent Muslims immediately afterwards. The question that struck me as I scrolled through the social media posts was, “Which of these approaches work?”

I set out to answer this question by collecting a range of videos that I thought (1) would have a good chance at reducing collective blame of Muslims, and (2) involved a range of plausible psychological mechanisms. I pitted 8 of these videos against each other in a video ‘interventions tournament’. In the tournament, online participants were assigned to view one of the videos, a ‘negative control’ video (a video produced by an anti-Muslim media company), or to a no-video control condition. After watching the video (or not, for the controls), all participants completed a survey, which included the key measure of collective blame of Muslims (‘How responsible are Muslims, in general, for the attacks in Paris in 2015’).

The video that best reduced collective blame was an interview with a Muslim woman on Al Jazeera. Another study that included only the ‘negative control’, the no-video control and the Al Jazeera video verified this effect.

So what was it about the video that swayed people? I predicted that the portion of the video that was doing the work was the first 15 seconds of the interview, where the Muslim woman expresses frustration at being asked to repudiate terror attacks. She notes that White people are not asked to apologize for the actions of the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church. If making people ‘wise’ to the hypocrisy of blaming some groups, but not others, for the actions of extremists was the element of the video that caused the reduction in collective blame of Muslims, then we should be able to isolate that argument and replicate the effect. I did this by creating an interactive activity.

In the ‘collective blame hypocrisy’ activity, I briefly describe the attacks of three White Supremacists (e.g., Dylann Roof who killed 9 Black parishioners in 2015). For each of these attacks, I ask participants to report how responsible they think they are for the attacks, and how responsible they think White Americans are for the attacks. I then let them know that the KKK still terrorizes non-White Americans by burning an average of 50 crosses a year, and ask how responsible they think mainstream Christians are for these actions. Finally, I give them a brief profile of 3 Muslims (e.g., Muniba, who owns a bakery in southern France), and ask how responsible they think these individual Muslims are for an attack by a Muslim extremist. Finally, I ask how responsible they think Muslims are, in general, for the attacks in Paris in 2015.

The effects of this intervention are quite striking. People who go through the activity collectively blame Muslims about 10 points on the 100-point scale, which is just about how much they blame White people and Christians for White/Christian extremism. Those who do not go through the activity report levels of collectively blame Muslims that are about 3 times higher (35-40 points on the same scale). The effects also extend beyond collective blame. In the study, I also measured support for anti-Muslim policies and willingness to sign anti-Muslim petitions; both were reduced for those who went through the Socratic activity via reductions in collective blame.

The approach outlined here lies in rather stark contrast with people’s most intuitive approaches at changing others’ hearts. A final lesson from this experience that I am examining now more systematically, is the reality that the interventions that appeal most directly to ‘the heart’ did not seem to be the most successful. In fact, I’ve tried many iterations over the years of ‘empathy-based’ interventions. In my hands, these have all crashed and burned. And yet here, a Socratic activity rooted in logos rather than pathos was effective at stimulating caring, concern and action. This suggests that strong biases prevent people from allowing their concern to be mobilized, and the direct approach of throwing more heart-wrenching stories of Muslim refugees at people may not be the most effective approach to increase their support for refugees. In fact, the best way to change someone’s heart might be to first change their mind.


Dr. Emile Bruneau is Director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania and Lead Scientist at Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab

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