The Impact of Negative Media Images – The Case of Muslims/Arabs – A Review of Research in Neuroscience and Social Psychology

As Presented at the Muslim Mental Health Conference, Michigan State University, April 3rd, 2010

“It is easier… to smash an atom than a prejudice,” said Gordon Allport, author of the landmark study on prejudice and stereotypes, The Nature of Prejudice in 1954. 30 years prior, in 1922, the great American public intellectual and journalist Walter Lippman wrote, “stereotypes are pictures in our heads.” These ideas anticipate nearly a century of research in social psychology, neurophysiology, and neurobiology – stereotypes remain to this day largely elusive, both in what causes them, and in how to treat stereotypical thinking. Since Allport’s functional-based psychological account of stereotypes and prejudice, prejudice as a category of research in psychology has been linked to character structures of the individual. Researchers and social psychologists have debated whether a change in environment, or a change in socialization, or inter group interaction is most effective in modifying stereotypical thinking. This paper will examine several studies in all three approaches and analyze how to account for high levels of prejudice towards Muslims and Arabs and conclude by putting forward some theoretical and practical measures for combating stereotypes towards Muslims and Arabs vis-a-vis the popular media.

Allport’s theoertical account of prejudice and stereotypes remains relevant even in light of research advances in neuroscience, particularly in “automaticity.” The “impact” of stereotypes, as the title implies is on how negative media images impact non-Arabs and non-Muslims, more so than how they impact Muslims themselves, although inevitably, as the case of mirror neurons testifies, what’s your perception is intimately my perception as well. Both theoretical and practical questions arise in light of these findings: how would a program or training in stereotype reduction work best? How might we advocate a change in television content in the context of a market where only violence and sex images seem to fulfill the profit-line? How do we create more morally nuanced and complex Muslim and Arab characters on screen and television?

Most of the research I will reference unfortunately does not directly incorporate Muslims and Arabs in its studies, so I infer a great deal based on traditional “out-groups,” as not surprisingly the most common images tested in neurological studies are designed to gauge white on black racism. In some cases the examples may be not particularly relevant to Muslims and Arabs, but the intention is to collectively get at how stereotypes in general form and how they can be eliminated. I am naturally assuming that Muslims and Arabs can be lumped into that same “out-group,” but it is important to recognize that prejudice towards Muslims and Arabs is unique and distinct from that of other traditionally categorized “out-groups” situated as it is in a historical and social environment, much of what sociologists call the “popular imagination” influences how people view Muslims and Arabs.

In recognition that Muslims and Arabs are a distinct “out-group” in the American popular imagination, a theoretical construct that can account for these distinct characteristics is essential. As a recent 2008 Gallup poll indicates, 22% of Americans would not want a Muslim as their neighbor, and nearly three in 10, or 29 percent, said they see mainstream Islam as advocating violence against non-Muslims. Based on this phenomenon, “terror management theory” and “realistic conflict theory” are both helpful in accounting for extreme prejudice towards Muslims.

Both of these theories spawn from the work of Ernest Becker in his famous work on psychology in the mid 20th century, The Denial of Death. I incorporate TMC because it seems to give interesting answers for a popular imagination framed in the context of a war against evil, a clash of civilizations, and culture-based conflict, all of which goes to shape how Americans view Muslims vis-a-vis the mass media. The use of terror management theory became popular immediately following the attacks of September 11th and has since fallen out of use by academics, social psychologists, and social scientists. I argue it still holds relevance, particularly for understanding extreme prejudice towards Muslims and Arabs.


Allport and the Psychological Theory of Prejudice

In The Nature of Prejudice, Allport sought to account for racial discrimination in the Jim Crow south through the rise of stereotypical and prejudicial thinking about blacks, a radically different approach compared to the prevailing theoretical orientation that was focused on issues of racism spawned from social inequality and oppression. Of course questions of justice, equality, and lack of resources were still important to Allport, but he argued that the core problem of racism was the systemic problem of prejudice. The Nature of Prejudice set the paradigm for future research in the fields of interpersonal relations and social psychology. The Nature of Prejudice provides a detailed empirical analysis of how prejudice works, linking the cause of prejudice to factors outside of the individual, to psychological functions, and personality structures, culminating in the most important aspect determiner of prejudice: socialization.

The text inverted the behavioralism view of stereotypes and racism dominant at the time, which claimed stereotypes were merely subjective mental health anomalies, or the result of idiosyncratic social pathologies. By arguing stereotypes were the result of individuals conforming to situational demands and social customs, not simply a matter of deep hostilities or deep convictions, the Nature of Prejudice posited prejudice as a problem beyond merely subjective symptoms, and framed the problem theoretically as a systemic one, embedded in the individual in uniquely functional ways. Allport wanted to answer the following questions: do stereotypes actually impact behavior, and do they lead to discrimination? For Allport stereotypes clearly do lead to discrimination and they impact behavior, but we’ll see later how research in automaticity problematizes this position. Allport argued that the act of making a stereotype served a “functional purpose.”

Instead of analyzing stereotypes as merely a stimulus object, whereby the out-group is perceived as an object of denigration (the traditional framework) Allport looked towards the system of stereotypes as a projected reality of the character structures of the person who employs the stereotype. In other words, his methodology “turned analysis away from the hated object back to the hater.” The stereotype then serves a functional purpose in the cognitive and values-sphere of the person deploying the stereotype, most commonly, Allport argued, stereotypes functioned as a response to an “inner anxiety.” In its expressed form, then, the stereotype is an emotional response to a perceived threat to the buildup of stress. Once it is articulated, the stereotype ameliorates the fear and anxiety within the person. The stereotype is the result of a series of internalized values, and the release of a stereotypical action serves to soothe the fears and anxieties built up about the “out-group” inside the individual. Similar to this type of thinking about stereotypes is sociologists Robert Lee’s idea that stereotypes fit into “narrative-based structures” that serve to exclude certain communities, or categories of people that don’t fit into the right “narrative symmetry.” Lee has argued, in the media, and especially in Hollywood films, “people are presented as alien when their presence disrupts the narrative structure of the community” (Robert G Lee, Pg. 7).

Allport grounds his functional approach on a concept he refers to as the “least effort principle,” which is defined as the tendency on behalf of the mind to categorize stimuli in the grossest manner compatible for action. Once a category is created (in this case an out-group, Muslim or Arab), that category “saturates all it contains with the same ideational and emotional flavor.”

Moreover, the category attunes the individual to information consistent with it, while inducing avoidance of contradictory data. The least effort principle shows that forming a bias towards one ethnic group is really no different than forming a bias towards any other object in material reality, so if I have an aversion to pork, or a sports team (for me the Yankees, or MSU), or rainy days, at least the form of my aversion fits the same structure as the out-group would form in my mind’s categorization of that object.

Another common feature of the least effort principle is the inability to identify proper “cause and effect schemas” for the stereotyped category. In studies by social psychologist Heider in the 1970’s, white participants receiving new information about African Americans and then forming judgments applied Allport’s last effort principle, he argues, in order to stabilize and simplify their perceptions of an ambiguous outer reality. Subjects in this study sought explanations of the conditions of African Americans based on what Heider refers to as “fundamental attribution error,” or the tendency to attribute an inferior status towards an out-group based on what the perceiver perceives to be “inner deficiencies” rather than on “circumstances beyond their control.” The perceiver’s capacity to categorize an out-group in accurate and complex ways is severely stunted based on the principle of least effort and fundamental attribution error. When presented with competing or challenging information about that out-group, the information disrupts the narrative symmetry, which the category depends upon for normal stable representations, and this then leads to “fundamental attribution errors.”

Polling data of Americans attitudes towards Muslims provides some telling examples of this phenomenon of “fundamental attribution errors”. In a recent Pew Forum poll, 45% of Americans view Muslims as violent while 56% profess knowing very little to nothing about Islam and Muslims. Despite the obvious double standard inherent in this data: on the one hand 56% of Americans profess across the board they know little or nothing but 45% are still able to formulate judgments of Muslims. Attitudes such as, “all Muslims tend to be violent,” can be understood through Allport’s model of the least effort principle as a fundamental attribution error. Because contradictory data is difficult to process for an out-group, similar sentiments such as: “how can it be that some Muslim women are not oppressed who wear a hijab?” or how can Sharia law also provide social justice and equality and not solely oppression – these seemingly contradictory possibilities cannot be accepted if we submit to Allport’s model of least effort principle.

Allport also notes that the person harboring the stereotype deploys the stereotype in a functional manner, just like a defensive mechanism. Prejudices are a matter of value judgments for Allport, so in relation to other forms of knowledge, for which psychologist Daniel Katz’s identifies four models: instrumental, ego-defensive, knowledge-based, and value-expressive, prejudice and stereotyping are value-expressive. We know now based on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) of the brain that there may be as many types of stereotyping systems in the brain as there are knowledge systems.

Automaticity and Stereotyping

Allport set the paradigm for future agendas in the study of prejudice and stereotyping. His work is tied to the idea that in order to “overcome stereotyping and prejudice” we must reform how socialization occurs. What we will find from a few case studies of research in automaticity and stereotyping, that changes in socialization are not the only way to influence the amelioration of stereotypes, and furthermore changes in contexts, particularly regarding violent images are key because even test subjects that revealed highly egalitarian moral impulses were still not totally impervious to stereotypical thinking. That is to say that what is to be done is different that a project to reform how people are socialized to understanding Muslims, although that would benefit the most, as very little interpersonal studies have been conducted and little longitudinal data is available about this.

Defined broadly, automaticity is actions that are influenced by low levels of details, or rational reason-based reflection, and is largely pre-reflective, habit-based modes of thought. Some psychologists have asked whether there can be any benefits of automaticity to overcoming stereotypes, which we will examine in more detail below, yet it is somewhat of a truism that the reception of the very idea of automaticity seems to be received as an inherent negative, as unconscious process are presupposed to be negative; either representing a social pathology, a bad habit, etc., (for which we have Freud to thank). What we do know about automaticity is that it in many ways reiterates and proves much of Allport’s original theoretical work. Automaticity has situational features: it can make one feel in a library by seeing an image of a library, and it then causes one to lower their voice and act as if they are in that environment. What automaticity shows in relation to research on stereotypes is that denigration of others appears to be an automatic and reflexive response to personal failures and threats to one’s own self-esteem, a position that fully confirming Allport’s 1954 theory.

In the last two decades, beginning with the steady growth in neurophysiology at the beginning of the 1990’s, studies of automaticity and prejudice have largely been based on a dualistic model split between intentional and unintentional frameworks. This division sees the role of breaking stereotypes to a project of two parts: breaking stereotypes through conscious intentional means, i.e. “it’s just like replacing a bad habit,” and secondly through non-intentional means, such as changes in social environment. The work of Patricia Devine’s work in automaticity in the early 1990’s shows that no response is completely “process pure.” Similarly, social psychologists Gilbert and Hixon in 1991 showed that when distracted or busy, the capacity for members to draw stereotypes is significantly diminished, leading them to conclude that a stereotype is not necessarily rooted in an unconditional deep-rooted bias but that there exist a great deal of malleability to stereotypes. In Moskowitz’s studies of prejudice and automaticity, he found that the stimulus of a negative out-group minority starts two processes at the same time: the activation of the stereotype and the activation of an egalitarian impulse, and these two forces will inhibit one another and then influence judgments (Moskowitz, 1999).

Moskowitz’ findings could be construed as somewhat counter to Allport’s “values-based” approach to understanding stereotypes because he was able to show that while values play a dominant role in stereotype generation they don’t always elicit unconditional biases, and that both through intentional (a change in habits) and unintentional (changes in environment) stereotypes can radically change. In one study conducted, white participants that viewed images of African Americans in different contexts in an immediate image and then fMRI results were portrayed in a matter of milliseconds, stereotypes were highly contingent on context.

African Americans seen at churches, or barbecue, compared to in ghetto conditions, etc. elicited automatic stereotypes less frequently. In a longitudinal study of two undergraduate seminars, one in conflict prevention that focused on intergroup dialogue intensively, and the second in a research methods, students that participated in the intergroup dialogue course showed clear signs of diminished automatic capacities of prejudice, whereas students enrolled in the research course did not (Rudman, Ashmore, and Gary). In a 2004 study conducted by Dasgupta and Asgari, social environments containing stereotypical or counter stereotypical exemplars were proven to impact automatic stereotypic beliefs. At an all-white school consistent exposure to generally liked blacks (Denzel Washington) and disliked whites (Jeffrey Dohmer) proved to lessen the prevalence of stereotypes towards the entire category of blacks. One interesting and also challenging finding is that for test subjects that sought to “search and replace” their stereotype they were faced with new recurring stereotypes.

In a study commissioned by D.T. Wegner found that for most subjects who had admitted to harboring stereotypical thinking, the effort of replacing the negative stereotype often lead to that very same stereotype reemerging into conscious awareness would rebound and become then become a part of that subject’s reality. This is a bit ironic that the conscious suppression of stereotypical thinking, or the “rebound effect” – on the one hand it shows that stereotypes have a strong hold over is not as prevalent in people who have internalized egalitarian values do not appear to be as susceptible to rebound effects as much as high-prejudiced individuals (Sherman and Devine, 1998).

One caveat to these studies is that where the individual, out of their own will, sought to reform their stereotypes towards blacks, they were highly likely to produce “rebound effects.” A rebound effect is when stereotype is disavowed but persists and reemerges out of their intentional control. What this indicates is that often when a person who is externally forced through a training or some other intervention (the hypothetical AA for prejudiced individuals) they are more likely to exhibit rebound effects (Wegner, 1994). What Wegner’s studies have discovered is that the more people seek to deliberately suppress their stereotypical thinking the more their automatic processes are open to new stereotypes entering their perception.

In similar research conducted by Monteith in 1993, he and his researchers showed that low-prejudiced individuals with generally egalitarian value systems dramatically self-regulate themselves and impose punishment associated with prejudiced responding. The question that remains to be answered is how do we cultivate a sensitivity to bias that arises from automatic processes?

Neuropsychological studies have indicated that one drawback from these studies is that they are solely limited to purely automatic, pre-reflective neural processes. What this suggests is that positive associations with out-groups may be generalized beyond initial specific exemplars to the general social category, and that a high degree of malleability and environment-contingent variability is dependent for any project to change stereotypical thinking. These findings in automaticity also imply that appropriate environmental pairings and mental representations have the potential to counter the associations that have been learned in the past. Whether these representations of reinforced positive characterizations can persist over time has yet to be shown in any more comprehensive longitudinal study. Collectively, these studies indicate that there needs to be more research done at the intersection of automatic processes and the way they interact. One problem is that there still is very little cross-disciplinary work going on between social psychologists and neuroscientists.

All of these examples bears the question: what does it take to reduce stereotypical thinking? It remains largely unknown how different forms of bias affect different types of behaviors in part because different underlying forms of implicit bias are difficult to parse using behavioral measures (Amodio, David, Pictures in Our Heads, Pg. 349). What is clear is that breaking down stereotypes requires sustained, deliberative processes over time. Individuals must take an active role in “saying no” to the influence of automatic stereotyping. Another complication is that most neuropsychological tests have been examined intrapersonally: and as a result we have very little understanding of how “implicit biases” get activated?

Accounting for Extreme Prejudice Towards Muslims and Arabs: Terror Management Theory

How do we account for extreme prejudice towards Muslims and Arabs? As the late Edward Said claimed in his text Covering Islam, perception of Islam and Muslims in the age of the mass media, “is an objective and also a subjective fact, because people create that fact in their faith, in their societies, histories, and traditions, or in the case of non Muslim outsiders, because they must in a sense, fix, personify, stamp, the identity of that which they feel confronts them collectively or individually” (Said, 1981, Covering Islam, Pg. 40). Islam has developed in the American popular imagination in three distinct stages, as a threat, as a terror and exotic symbol, and as evil. The threat stage really came into prominence starting with the OPEC oil crisis in 1973 up to the Iran revolution and the Iran Contra Scandal in 1979 – 80 (threat stage). From the early 1980’s up to September 11th Islam was associated with violent terror and distant intrigue, exoticism, and ultra foreign. Following 9/11 and over the last 8 years with the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq Islam has come to often be equated with evil.

Constructing Islam and Muslims as an evil category must be understood psychologically: evil is irrational, it is always opposed to “our” way of life, you cannot dialogue with it, elimination of evil is the only solution. In this context of a popular imagination inflected with this deep “existential threat” that images of Islam and Islamic radicalism evoke, “terror management theory” provides a helpful framework for understanding extreme prejudice. Terror management theory is influenced by philosopher Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death in the 1970’s and its very basic view is that humans transfer, or sublimate our fear of death onto a higher level, specifically onto culture, and in that transfer one’s culture becomes imbued with new kinds of anxieties and instabilities. Each of our internalized cultural worldviews require subjective reality to have a certain order, meaning, and permanence – what regulates this order is fear of one’s own “mortality salience” (or awareness of our own culture’s death) and this structures our defensive reactions and our constitutes our very worldview. Terror management theory accounts for extreme prejudice towards Muslims and Arabs because in the very act of denigrating an other’s worldview, that act of denigration serves to replenish one’s own worldview; denigration then becomes the basis of psychological security. What little research there is in TMC and prejudice shows that heightened mortality salience concerns lead stigmatized individuals to defensively dis-identify from their in-group and even to conform to negative cultural stereotypes.

As a theoretical construct, TMC accounts for such social phenomenon as Muslims and Arabs moving away from their in-group solidarity in the face of mortality salience, or in the face of a cultural stigmatization that equates images of death and evil with their culture. On a more positive note, research in TMC also shows that stigmatized out-groups facing the pressure of mortality salience are also given a heightened capacity for creating situations of pluralism. What TMC suggests is that denigrating others seems to bolster one’s own faith or cultural worldview and their own self worth. Closely related to TMC is realistic group conflict theory that sees group conflict as a struggle between competing ethnic, racial or religious groups over resources. Such a theory might account for views of Arabs and Muslims as immigrants stealing Americans jobs, or opportunities, the blame it on the immigrant who poses an existential threat to our way of life argument that some very far right wing spokespeople have put forward.

Mirror Neurons and Moral Judgment

In Joshua Greene’s recent work in How Does Moral Judgment Work and The Neural Basis of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment, what we see is that emotions and reasoning both matter in making moral judgments, but automatic processes tend to dominate. From the “cognitive revolution,” we’re now undergoing the “affective revolution” and to accommodate this we have to concede that emotion is a significant driver to moral reasoning and moral problem solving.

In sum, Greene’s work shows that reasoning can play an important role in impersonal moral judgments and in personal moral judgments, but there is no designated “moral point of view” in the brain because every section also impacts other sections. One of the most helpful concepts that Greene discusses as it relates to stereotypes and prejudice is “ambiguity aversion,” which is similar to the “least effort principle” that Allport put forward, it posits that fear and paralysis in the face of the unknown leads to more emotive-based reasoning and less reason-based in forming moral judgments.

In Mirroring People, psychologist Marco Iacobani shows how mirror neurons help us to reenact in our brains the intentions of other people, giving us a profound understanding of their mental states. Mirror neurons are concerned with goals, not with specific actions to achieve those goals, and in many instances they have been proven to associate perceptions with intentions and goals of the perceived object. Mirror neurons are intimately tied to imitative learning, so much so that we have the Dalia Lama referring to them as scientific proof of our innate capacity for empathy, and of course research in mirror neurons has drastically changed philosopher’s understandings of what makes us the most capable of understanding other people, whereas we assumed it was language and the centrality of verbal communication, mirror neurons are proving that at the core it is physical and unconscious imitation, not through language.

Closely related to the impact that automaticity has had on the formulation of stereotypes is the role that mirror neurons plays in imitative behavior and learning. Mirror neurons have also fundamentally changed the way that we think about assessing other people, for which there are still two general points of view, the more moderate camp that argues to be in someone else’s shoes involves a cognitive and effortful process. And the more radical camp argues that we automatically experience the other person’s subjective experience through mirror neurons (73 – 74). All of this goes to prove French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty when he claimed that most conscious perception “is as if the other inhabits my body and I his.”

What could the policy arguments consist of in light of these discoveries of mirror neurons and our shared intersubjective-ness, and the basis of how automaticity forms our moral judgment? It would be foolish to argue, in a society that values second amendment protections that we repeal violent images because of their detrimental prejudicial effects, but it is crucial that we show the media industry and creative professionals that there is an alternative set of narratives that fulfill the profit motive.

Concluding Questions and Points:

– We need positive representations of Muslims and Arabs over a sustained period of time (change of environment) as Wegner’s studies have shown work with the example of Denzel Washington images.

– More research needs to be conducted on the power of intergroup and relationships play in overcoming prejudice, as what little we do know is that intergroup over changes in environment seem to lead to the most credible changes in stereotypical tendencies.

– Since we know that in order to change a stereotype, you have to want to change, what sorts of programs can we integrate into society – the AA for people who harbor stereotypes.

– Can the findings in mirror neurons provide a policy proposal for changing media content as Iacobani and others have suggested?


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