Highlighting hypocrisy reduces anti-Muslim sentiment


Study finds a better way to play the blame game. Mark Bruer reports.


Researchers find a way to address collective blame, which could help alleviate conflict escalation.

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Researchers have found an effective weapon for fighting anti-Muslim sentiment: our innate dislike of hypocrisy.

It seems most of us detest being exposed as hypocrites even more than we loathe groups we blame for acts of violence.

A study of more than 600 people in Spain has shown that many who harboured hostility towards Muslims softened their views when they were shown to be hypocritical, and that this effect lasted for at least a year.

The findings support the researchers’ proposal that “collective blame hypocrisy intervention” is a useful tool for reducing animosity and violence between groups of people who blame each other for the world’s ills.

The international study was run by Emile Bruneau, from the University of Pennsylvania, US, and colleagues from American and Spanish universities. They wanted to find a way to tackle the collective blame phenomenon, in which all members of a group are blamed for the actions of individuals.

In conflict between two groups, both sides are likely to fall into this trap.

For example, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombings cited Muslim suffering caused by Americans as motivation for their attacks, even though they targeted civilians not involved in hostilities towards Muslims.

On the other hand, anti-Muslim hate speech and crimes committed against Muslim civilians both spike after attacks by Muslim extremists. Muslims not involved in extremism have been targeted in lethal attacks, most notably in the Al Noor Mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.

All participants in the study were initially asked the extent to which they believed Muslims in general were to be blamed for suicide bombing attacks by ISIS in Brussels in 2016, which killed 35 people. Answers were given on a sliding scale of one to 100.

They were also asked the extent to which they supported anti-Muslim policies, such as reducing assistance to Muslim refugees and even shutting down mosques.

Apart from a control group, participants were then presented with the “intervention” – descriptions of three different instances of mass violence committed by white Europeans, and a survey asking them to rate on a sliding scale how responsible they held white Europeans and themselves for the actions of the attackers. They were also asked generally how responsible white Europeans were for the actions of white extremists.

After challenging the participants with these questions, the researchers returned with information about Muslim extremist attacks in Paris in 2015 and asked once again how much blame should be borne by Muslims generally for those attacks.

After the participants received the intervention material, their tendency to blame all Muslims for the 2015 Paris attacks was roughly halved compared with their earlier answers.

In other words, having been forced to consider whether they themselves could be held responsible for the actions of outlier individuals within their own group, they became much less likely to point the finger at Muslims generally.

A repeat test one year later showed that while the participants’ proclivity to blame Muslims had returned to some degree, it was still less than in the control group.

The results of the study are particularly striking because during the testing ISIS launched attacks in Spain which killed 16 people and wounded 100. This could have been expected to harden the test participants’ attitudes towards Muslims, but does not appear to have done so.

So how does it work?

Writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the researchers say their approach exploits what is known as a cognitive dissonance hypocrisy paradigm, in which people find inconsistency in their own thinking intolerable and are compelled to rethink their position.

“Collective blame hypocrisy approach functions by leveraging individuals’ psychological discomfort with appearing inconsistent,” they write.

Of course, it doesn’t work with everyone. Some people simply care more than others about being consistent in their views, the researchers note. And the approach will only work if there actually is hypocrisy to expose.

Even so, the intervention approach may be useful in easing dangerous tensions.

“Given the potential of collective blame to facilitate conflict escalation,” they suggest, “understanding how to short-circuit this cycle is critical to reducing civilian casualties resulting from intergroup conflict.”

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Mark Bruer is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide, Australia. He is a former Features Editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne, and Online Editor of The Australian and news.com.au in Sydney.
  1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0747-7
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