Prejudice: How do you respond?

Release Date: 
Oct 23 2010

When it comes to stopping prejudice that can lead to incidents such as the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after his roommate used a webcam to broadcast video of him in a sexual encounter with another man, people often throw up their hands, suggesting they are not sure what to do or how to respond, says an expert on prejudice at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

Leslie Ashburn-Nardo 

Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, Associate Professor of Psychology

That’s why research into what stops people from confronting people who act or speak in prejudicial ways is important, said Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, Associate Professor of Psychology in the School of Science at IUPUI.

Confrontation can be as simple as a non-verbal gesture, a roll of the eyes signaling dissatisfaction with what has been said or done, she said, adding, “it doesn’t have to be an in-your-face heated approach. It can be more subtle and carry more of an educational tone than an angry tone.”

Studies show confrontation works, but in many situations people shy away from it. Then they often stew about why they didn’t do something, even to the point of suffering psychologically Ashburn-Nardo said.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Ashburn-Nardo and researchers at two other universities- Butler University and Wright State University - are examining what obstacles stand in the way of people using confrontation.

“All of us have the potential to witness prejudice and then have to face questions such as what can we do and what kind of role do we have in putting a stop to it.” By investigating factors that might facilitate confrontation or inhibit people from confronting, researchers believe they can help people address concerns such as “will it work or blow-up in my face.”

“Ultimately, if we understand those factors and what role they play in preventing people from confronting, then we can design interventions to help people learn how to overcome those obstacles,” she said.

At IUPUI, research will focus on obstacles that have to do with deciding to act, including whether people feel sufficiently skilled and prepared to act and whether people think the benefits of confronting someone outweigh potential costs of doing so, such as when the person to be confronted is that person’s boss.

“Confrontation is not something we are often taught how to do,” Ashburn-Nardo said. “Sometimes people don’t feel they know what to do and if they did do something they believe it wouldn’t go well,” she said.

At Wright State, researchers will look at the fact that sometimes people don’t deem prejudice an emergency. “We think for people to step into action and confront, they need to see whatever it was that happened as something that is unjust and that requires an immediate response,” Ashburn-Nardo said. Researchers at Butler will study obstacles relating to responsibility. “Sometimes we are in a situation where we don’t feel responsible for doing something, such as when we are not the authority figure in the situation.”

The end goal of the research is to improve understanding of these obstacles so that programs can be developed to teach people how to use confrontation as a tool to deal with prejudice, she said. “If people learn about the risks and benefits, they can make more informed decisions. If they know some of the risks they fear aren’t really likely to happen, maybe they will be more inclined to speak up.”

And when people speak out, she noted, they are empowered. And perhaps in a better position to prevent tragedies like the one at Rutgers.