I just heard this story on PRI’s The World and it made me think again about defaults. Bear with me for a minute and you may see why.
The story is about a County Commissioner in Tennessee who posted something quite racist against Muslims on Facebook. A Muslim who was running for a different seat on that same commission called him up to talk about it and invited him over for dinner. (It would be nice if we all handled problems this way, but that is a topic for another post). The conversation was quite interesting. The racist commissioner was completely unaware that he had said anything wrong or that anyone could be offended. He didn’t know there was a difference between “Muslim” and “terrorist” because of everything he heard in the media. He had never been “up close” to a Muslim or asked about their beliefs. Is the default schema when someone has zero information about a group to assume the worst??
Most (mainstream) media outlets are relatively careful to say somewhere in their reports that terrorists compose a small minority of the Muslim population and they also compose a small minority of all the rest of the world’s religions. Timothy McVeigh is a common example I have seen used in these cases. But it seems that people who have never seen a member of a minority “up close” seem to default to negative stereotypes because of what they see on the media. News media are always showing negative stories (for all groups) because that is what drives ratings. Movies and TV shows often write scripts to fit stereotypes, which often are negative for minorities. So in the absence of other interaction, people develop generally negative schema of minorities.
So here is my thought today. What do you think is the minimum exposure that would be necessary to overcome this schema development process? We have a natural in-group preference that creates a bias towards positive opinions of people similar to us and negative towards "The Other." The younger we intervene the better because we start developing these “out-group” schema before we are even one year old (I have blogged about this before with research of infants as early as 4-6 months). Is there a strategic intervention process we need, particularly for more isolated populations? Would it work? Could it work?