New research from Personality and Individual Differences has identified a psychological process that might promote proactiveness against discrimination. The study found that people who showed a tendency to engage in perspective taking were more likely to say they would intervene when witnessing racist or sexist behaviors.
It is often understood that prejudiced behavior is the result of discriminatory beliefs and attitudes. But study authors Carter Davis and his team maintain that there is more to the story than that. Emerging studies have now begun to explore the psychological processes that influence a person’s decision to act on these beliefs.
Davis and his colleagues focused on two psychological constructs that might affect a person’s likelihood of engaging in prejudiced behavior — psychological flexibility and perspective taking. Psychological flexibility is the ability to acknowledge one’s implicit attitudes but to act with meaning, in accordance with one’s values. Perspective taking is a skill that allows a person to adopt another person’s point of view, such as a member of an outgroup. Together, these skills might promote action against discriminatory behavior by allowing people to note their internal prejudices, understand the perspectives of marginalized groups, and choose to act meaningfully.
The researchers had 386 American university students complete a survey that assessed their anti-racist attitudes, anti-sexist attitudes, psychological inflexibility, and perspective taking. The students were also asked to indicate how likely they would be to engage in certain anti-racist behaviors (e.g., confronting someone who tells a racist joke) and anti-sexist behaviors (e.g., intervening to prevent sexual assault against a female victim).
The results showed that students who demonstrated higher perspective taking (e.g., “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place”) were more likely to say they would intervene to prevent sexual assault. In fact, greater perspective taking predicted the likelihood of engaging in anti-sexist behaviors over and above a measure of ambivalent sexism.
Respondents who engaged in perspective taking were also more likely to say they would partake in anti-racist behaviors. Perspective taking predicted anti-racist behaviors over and above an assessment of respondents’ awareness of white privilege. Psychological inflexibility, however, was not found to predict either anti-sexist or anti-racist behaviors — suggesting that this trait alone does not account for a person’s engagement in discriminatory behaviors.
Davis and his team say that these findings suggest that adopting the perspective of marginalized others plays a vital role in encouraging behavioral action against racism and sexism. According to previous research, perspective taking can be developed through training and can lead to changed behavior. Interventions that promote this psychological process may offer an effective method of encouraging anti-racist and anti-sexist behaviors.
“Designing interventions which foster perspective taking skills, particularly as they contribute to assuming the viewpoint of marginalized groups, may be effective as opposed to interventions seeking to alter the content of prejudicial attitudes and beliefs,” Davis and colleagues stipulate.
The authors note that their study was limited by a fairly small sample of mostly white, female respondents, and additional studies will need to be conducted among more diverse samples. They say it would also be of interest to explore how perspective taking influences action against other types of discrimination like homophobia and ableism.
The study, “The Role of Psychological Inflexibility and Perspective Taking in Anti-Racism and Anti-Sexism”, was authored by Carter Davis, Jennifer Krafft, Elizabeth Tish Hicks, and Michael E. Levin.