Psychologists have shown that diversity promotes tolerance towards different groups if it catches people by surprise.
In a paper published by PLoS ONE, Dr Milica Vasiljevic of the University of Kent and Professor Richard Crisp of the University of Sheffield explain how they conducted a series of experiments in which participants (British undergraduates) thought of surprising combinations of social categories such as overweight model, rich student, female firefighter or male midwife.
Thinking of people with a surprising, unfamiliar background led to a reduction of prejudice towards multiple stigmatised groups such as the elderly, disabled, asylum seekers, HIV patients, or gay men. It also fostered generalised tolerance and egalitarian beliefs.
Importantly, through a field test in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a region with a history of violent ethnic conflict, the researchers demonstrated that a brief and cost-effective intervention based on this technique can increase trust and reconciliatory tendencies towards multiple ethnic groups such as Gypsies, Albanians, Serbs and Greeks.
The research also demonstrated that considering people with a surprising background can encourage lateral thinking and lead to more openness and greater cognitive flexibility.
Dr Vasiljevic said: 'Promoting tolerance for diversity is one of the key challenges the UK and other countries are facing. However, for decades the problem of how to achieve tolerance towards multiple groups in society has eluded scientists. This novel intervention presents a first step towards developing viable intervention strategies that target prejudice towards more than one group in society, with the aim of promoting a more tolerant society in general.'
Professor Crisp added: 'The success of this novel task underscores the importance of cognitive factors in effects to reduce prejudice, and highlights the need to challenge not only negative beliefs about specific social groups, but also the way in which we think about groups in general.'
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