A series of studies by led by Emile Bruneau examined the effectiveness of different interventions in reducing collective blame of all Muslims for individual terrorist acts by extremists. Their findings, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, indicate that interventions which emphasize participants’ hypocrisy in collectively blaming Muslims for the acts of individual group members while not doing so for other groups (e.g. White Americans, Christians) are effective in reducing collective blame of Muslims and anti-Muslim attitudes and behaviors.
“Intergroup violence is a major cause of death and suffering around the world,” the authors write. “Understanding the psychological processes that feed conflict, and how to short-circuit these processes, may be critical to reducing human suffering.”
Bruneau and his team describe a common and continual pattern in which an act of terror perpetrated by Muslim extremists, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is followed by public blaming of Muslims and a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. They suggest that such cycles demonstrate the psychological tendency in intergroup conflict to hold “groups collectively responsible for actions of individual group members,” which ultimately provides grounds for “vicarious retribution,” or revenge exacted on innocent group members.
The authors, who are affiliated with University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab, hoped to identify ways to break this pattern. More specifically, they aimed to find interventions that are effective in reducing collective blame of Muslims and thereby in diminishing anti-Muslim sentiment and behavior on the part of non-Muslim Americans.
Interventions that decrease experiences of discrimination and social distancing may have a significant preventative effect, reducing distress that is tied to the development of mental health problems. For instance, a 2016 study in the UK found that repeated incidents of racial discrimination significantly erode mental health. Similarly, research in social defeat theory finds that chronic feelings of outsider status may lead to the sensitization of the dopamine system and the experience of symptoms associated with psychosis.
The researchers’ objective in the first of a series of studies was to lay the groundwork for subsequent intervention-focused studies by establishing that the extent to which non-American Muslims’ collectively blame Muslims for terror attacks is connected to anti-Muslim attitudes, policy endorsement, and behavior.
To accomplish this, the researchers had participants (n = 193) complete a survey measuring their collective blame of Muslims for the then-recent November 2015 Paris terror attacks, dehumanization of Muslims, prejudice against Muslims, and support for anti-Muslim policies. The survey also included two behavioral measures, the first of which asked participants to distribute funding to punitive or preventative Muslim-targeted counterterrorism programs. For the second, participants were invited to sign anti-Muslim petitions.
In support of the researchers’ original hypothesis, analysis of the survey data showed that participants who collectively blamed Muslims exhibited higher rates of anti-Muslim prejudice, dehumanization, the backing of anti-Muslim policies, and anti-Muslim behavior.
Having confirmed their initial hypothesis regarding the occurrence of and links to collective blame of Muslims, Bruneau and his team turned to determining which interventions would be effective in decreasing collective blame of Muslims. They accomplished this by implementing a study in which various interventions were tested simultaneously (an “intervention tournament”). In this study, non-Muslim Americans (n = 1,765) were randomly assigned to one of ten conditions. The conditions included eight different video interventions using various psychological strategies to address Islamophobia, as well as an “empty control” condition with no video and a “negative control” condition in which participants watched a video critical of Islam.
After watching one of the videos, participants completed measures similar to those in Study 1. Based on analysis of the data collected from these measures, the researchers found that only one of the videos, which used an approach of addressing “collective blame hypocrisy,” significantly decreased collective blame. The “winning” video featured a Muslim woman discussing the hypocrisy inherent in blaming all Muslims for the actions of Muslim extremists while failing to do the same for all Christians for Christian extremists’ acts.
The researchers attributed the video’s effectiveness to the sense of cognitive dissonance it likely induced in viewers. They suggest that, in alignment with Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, participants would have been motivated to resolve this dissonance by minimizing their collective blame of Muslims.
In a final pair of studies, the researchers sought to isolate and replicate this hypocrisy effect on collective blame by developing and testing a new hypocrisy-focused intervention (i.e. a Socratic exercise). This time, participants in the main experimental group (“Collective Blame Hypocrisy activity”) were prompted to report the degree to which they blame themselves and White Americans generally for “acts of mass violence committed by highly self-identified White men.”
They then reported how much they blamed all Muslims for violent acts committed by Muslims. The intervention was found to be effective: reported levels of collective blame of Muslims amongst participants in the experimental group were half that of those in the control group. Lower levels of anti-Muslim attitudes, policy support, and behavior were also found amongst participants who had completed Collective Blame Hypocrisy exercise, and these results “were mediated by the activity’s effect on collective blame.”
Across their studies, Bruneau’s team demonstrated that different kinds of interventions targeting hypocrisy (e.g. an informational video, a Socratic activity) were effective in lowering collective blame of Muslims and that this drop in collective blame mediated a reduction in anti-Muslim policy support and behavior. They suggest that their findings align with a larger body of research on the “hypocrisy paradigm’s” effectiveness in spurring behavior transformation, including changes in condom use, recycling, and traffic law adherence.
The authors recognize that their studies present some limitations. Because they used “crowdsourced” videos created by nonscientists rather than using researcher-designed videos, the videos contained “multiple potential psychological elements,” which made their effects more difficult to distinguish. They write that their findings should therefore not “be used as evidence against specific psychological theories.”
Additionally, as Bruneau and his team’s studies examined immediate rather than long-term effects, further research is needed to determine the staying power of these interventions’ effects. The authors also note that future research should explore whether these findings apply to other, non-Muslim marginalized groups.
Bruneau, E., Kteily, N., & Falk, E. (2017). Interventions highlighting hypocrisy reduce collective blame of Muslims for individual acts of violence and assuage anti-Muslim hostility. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 0146167217744197. (Link)