Media messaging that humanizes communities doesn’t change attitudes, study says

Oct 17, 2022, 11:02 AM | Updated: Nov 19, 2022, 12:30 am
Messaging aimed towards enacting change in people's minds through humanizing certain communities ha...
Messaging aimed towards enacting change in people's minds through humanizing certain communities has been shown to be ineffective according to research from BYU. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)
(Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

PROVO, Utah – Media messaging with the intent to change people’s attitudes toward communities by “humanizing” them has proven to be ineffective, new research from BYU shows.

Professors with the political science department at BYU conducted a study where they showed participants clips from a documentary of immigrants in humanizing and relatable situations. Nearly 3,500 Republicans in the western U.S. were surveyed about their attitudes toward immigrants before and after they watched the clips.

Participants were more likely to view the immigrants as human after they watched the clips, the results show, but only viewers who had positive views prior to watching. Those viewers actually became more empathetic towards the immigrants.

People negatively disposed toward immigrants prior to the study did not display any change in attitude, according to researchers.

“The hope was to identify ways to reduce prejudice in the types of messages that activists and politicians and a whole host of people are trying to use,” BYU political science professor Joshua Gubler said.

Gubler said research shows that people who have prejudiced views against someone different can experience a reduction in prejudice over time through positive individual interaction with members of that group. Because that is difficult to do with the general population, the BYU study aimed at seeing if humanizing media messaging can be a solution.

Although humanizing messaging is widely accepted as effective, Gubler said the research suggests that the type of messaging in ads is likely to have very little effect in changing the hearts and minds of those it is meant to change.

In this study, a “preaching to the choir effect” occurred for viewers who already had positive views of immigrants. For politicians, Gubler said this type of messaging can rally the base and support for a candidate to increase voter turnout.

Viewers who disliked immigrants either had no change in attitude or actually showed lower levels of empathy, according to the BYU study.

“The reason for this is dissonance – this uncomfortable feeling that arises when people feel a challenge to (their) core beliefs, particularly beliefs tied to sense of self,” Gubler said.

In this study, people who disliked immigrants experienced dissonance when they watched clips of immigrants being human and relatable. The brain issues an automatic response of discomfort when what it’s being told is contrary to what it already thinks is true.

“We convince people that a group they had thought of as less-than-human is actually human. They report feeling slightly increased levels of empathy,” Gubler said. “But dissonance then jumps in and prevents them then from taking the next step which is expanding their view, their tolerance towards that group.”

Gubler said he thinks this finding sheds light on the importance of recognizing that dissonance process in ourselves and fighting against it. It is crucial to understand the role those automatic responses play in shaping personal opinions, he said.

The research suggests a need to tap into the lived experiences of those the ad is targeted toward, to help them see a candidate or certain positions are consistent with their life experiences, he said.

Political ads

BYU political professor Quin Monson said most political advertising is designed to tap into an emotional response. Using media to produce emotional reactions is easy, but changing people’s minds and attitudes about a topic or person is a much more difficult task.

With political advertising, the goal is to convince a viewer to choose one candidate over another, such as Democrat over Republican or vice versa. When there is a binary choice, humanizing messaging works better because the viewer at some point has to choose and attitudes can be swayed better, Monson said.

Changing attitudes about immigration or immigrants or another group of people is more difficult because there is never a time you are forced to make a decision one way or another, Monson said.

The research challenges the assumption that people will change their minds when shown the facts. “Persuasion on a hot-button issue is more difficult than it might appear. It takes more than an advertising campaign or documentary to move attitudes,” Monson said.

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Documentaries and television ads are appealing because they can reach thousands of people at once in a cost-effective way. While many will identify with people presented in humanizing messaging, it isn’t enough to be sustained and create change.

“Dissonance isn’t enough. Producing discomfort isn’t enough to get to an attitude change,” Monson said.

The political science department is conducting further research to find the best way to enact change in attitudes through messaging. Some experiments involve tapping into participants’ lived experiences and focusing on the positive experiences participants have had with that specific marginalized group.

Other experiments include alerting participants about the dissonance they might feel to see if it helps them constructively deal with it and make the process more conscious, leading to self-reflection and potential change.

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Media messaging that humanizes communities doesn’t change attitudes, study says