Researchers Look at Why People Hesitate to use Confrontation to Stop Prejudice

Release Date: 
Jun 14 2010

Researchers and students at IUPUI, Butler University and Purdue University are collaboratively investigating why people hesitate to use confrontation to curb or stop prejudice .

Leslie Ashburn-Nardo 

Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, Associate Professor of Psychology

Studies show confrontation works, but in many situations people shy away from it. Then they often stew about why they didn’t do something, suffering psychologically said Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, who was recently promoted to Associate Professor of Psychology in the School of Science at IUPUI.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the researchers will examine what obstacles stand in the way of people using confrontation, she said.

The very word may put some people off, Ashburn-Nardo said. “I wish a different term had been chosen by researchers to describe this technique because confrontation need not be so argumentative or confrontational. It can be as simple as a non-verbal gesture, a roll of the eyes signaling dissatisfaction with what has been said or done. 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.”

“From the prejudice reduction literature, we know when most people catch themselves saying or doing something that is prejudiced, they tend to feel guilty and self-critical, Ashburn-Nardo said. “I think most of time most people don’t intend to express prejudice, and surveys show that most people are motivated not to express prejudice. But stereotypes and prejudices often lurk beneath the surface of conscious awareness, and sometimes they come to mind and are expressed automatically. As a result, prejudice these days is often expressed more subtly and unintentionally, and people don’t always catch themselves,” she said .

Confrontation has been investigated and shown as a means to get people to recognize the prejudice in their words or actions and that kick starts self-critical feelings and feeling of guilt, Ashburn-Nardo added.

The research at IUPUI, Butler University and Purdue University is examining what obstacles people face when they witness or experience prejudice that make them hesitant to say something.

At IUPUI, research will focus on obstacles that have to do deciding to act, including whether they people feel sufficiently skilled and prepared to act and whether people they 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 taught how to do,” Ashburn-Nardo said. “Sometimes people don’t feel they know what to do and if they did do something it wouldn’t go well,” she said

At Purdue, 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 requires an immediate response or something that is very hurtful to someone,” 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.

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