Character  &  Context

Predicting Resistance to Taking on The Perspective of Minority Group Members

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Some individuals believe that people in disadvantaged positions are personally to blame for their situation. For example, poverty can be viewed as resulting from poor people’s bad decision making. This belief can lead these individuals to feel happy when disadvantaged groups face harsh treatment. For example, they may be happy when asylum seekers are put in detention centres, believing that the asylum seekers were wrong to enter the country illegally and so they must suffer the consequences. Is it possible to reduce prejudiced beliefs regarding, and foster empathy toward, disadvantaged groups amongst people who hold these beliefs?

Around 2000, researchers believed that they could change people’s attitudes towards disadvantaged or stigmatized others using an intervention termed “perspective taking” in which participants were asked to look at the world through the eyes of a disadvantaged person and walk in their shoes. This intervention led to positive effects such as increased helping behaviour and reduced negative stereotypes and prejudice. However, more recent research showed that perspective taking can sometimes backfire to produce more hostile attitudes towards the targets of perspective taking.

In our research we investigated a different but related phenomenon: are there people who, instead of completing the perspective taking exercise but then feeling more hostile afterwards, would reject to even take the perspective of a minority group member in the first place? We focused on participants’ identification with their nation (here, Australia) as a factor that might predict whether or not they would agree to take on the perspective of a minority group member.

Based on the literature, we distinguished between two types of identification: glorification and attachment. People who glorify their nation are devoted to their country, their national policies and national safety. Such unconditional devotion to the nation leads to rejecting any form of criticism about the government. Glorifying identifiers believe that their nation is superior and they are prejudiced, intolerant and hostile towards minority groups. Conversely, attached identification involves an affective dedication and commitment to the nation but also a critical attitude towards the government’s immoral behaviour against minority groups. Attached identifiers thus tend to want to help groups being harmed by the government.

In our study attached and glorifying identifiers were asked to take the perspective of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are often portrayed in the global and national media as a threat to national security. Hence, we expected that glorifiers would feel threatened by, and prejudiced towards, people seeking asylum. We reasoned that glorifiers would resist complying with the perspective-taking instruction because the prospect of increasing self-other overlap with a threatening group makes that group seem even more threatening. Conversely, attached identifiers would engage in perspective taking because they would not perceive asylum seekers as a threat, nor would they be prejudiced given that attached identification is associated with greater inclusion of minority group members.

In two studies we measured reactance toward and compliance with perspective taking instructions. Reactance is a response to threats to perceived behavioural freedom. When behavioural freedom (that is, the right to do, think or say what one wishes) is perceived to be restricted, people often respond with hostile behaviour and/or resistance. People can also become motivated to re-establish the threatened freedom through counter-behaviour.

We found that the more people glorified their national group, the more they perceived asylum seekers as being a threat to their nation, the greater their prejudice toward asylum seekers, the more they engaged in reactance against the perspective- taking instructions, and the greater was their non-compliance with the instructions. The instructions actually led glorifiers to respond from their own perspective. Ironically, when no perspective-taking instructions were provided, about 40% of the glorifiers voluntarily engaged in perspective taking. Across both studies, the opposite pattern of findings was found for attached identifiers. The more people felt attached to their nation, the less they perceived asylum seekers as being a threat to their nation, the less their prejudice and reactance against the perspective-taking instructions, and the greater was their compliance with the instructions.

Our hypotheses were supported; the more one glorifies one’s national group, the more likely one is to disengage in perspective-taking of minority group members who are perceived to be a realistic threat. The current research adds to a small but growing literature showing the effects of perspective-taking are not uniformly positive and bridges previous findings about the potentially paradoxical effects of perspective-taking.

Specifically, we suggest that different forms of national identification may further qualify previous findings about the effects of social identification on perspective-taking and backlash. However, we note that the processes involved in reactance likely differ from those involved in the backlash effect, in which compliance with the instructions leads to increased prejudice. Our analysis identifies a different path whereby glorifiers experience reactance (due to perceptions of realistic threat and feelings of prejudice) against the perspective-taking instructions which produces non-compliance with the task.

A practical implication of our research is that appeals seeking to increase public support for humanitarian aid to refugees and asylum seekers might consider the two different audiences (glorifying and attached national identifiers) when developing their strategies. For example, before asking glorifying identifiers to take on the perspective of minority group members, one may first consider satisfying glorifiers’ need to be perceived as flawless such that they feel pride and consequently are less resistant to the perspective-taking instructions and more open-minded about the disadvantaged situation of the minority groups.

Mariette Berndsen is a lecturer in social psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. Her research focuses on social identification, emotions, thinking styles, and social change in the context of intergroup conflicts. 

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