By Emma Young
Terror attacks by Muslim extremists tend to provoke hate crimes in response. After the London Bridge and Borough market attacks in 2017, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, for example, there was a spike in the number of reports of verbal and physical attacks on innocent Muslims. Two weeks after the London Bridge attacks, a British non-Muslim man even drove his van into worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, killing one and injuring 11.
“People have a tendency to hold groups collectively responsible for the actions of individual group members, which justifies ‘vicarious retribution’ against any group member to exact revenge,” note the authors of a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that explores how to short-circuit this cycle of violence.
In what the researchers dub an “interventions tournament”, they tried out various methods of reducing the collective blaming of all Muslims for attacks by individual extremists. Most failed. But there was one clear winner: an intervention that encouraged non-Muslims to see the hypocrisy in blaming all Muslims for the appalling actions of a few individuals, but not all Christians for the violent actions of an extremist few.
Emily Bruneau at the University of Pennsylvania led the work, beginning with a study of the importance of collective blaming, involving 193 mostly white, Christian Americans, recruited online. As they predicted, the researchers found that those participants who held Muslims collectively responsible for the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015 were also more likely to endorse a suite of anti-Muslim attitudes and beliefs.
Next, the researchers selected eight 2-4 minute-long videos containing different psychological “elements” that might help reduce the belief in collective blame. For example, one of the videos highlighted the diversity of the Muslim experience – challenging the idea that “all Muslims are the same”. Two videos depicted non-Muslim Americans demonstrating that they do not hold Muslims collectively responsible for terror incidents – by donating to a vandalised mosque, for example. This kind of “social proof” has been shown in other studies to strongly influence behaviour.
A total of 1,765 non-Muslim Americans watched one of these eight videos, or no video (as a control), or a “negative control” – a video interview with a Syrian-born woman who attacked Islam as backward and violent. This video was expected to increase collective blame, and the analysis showed that it did – highlighting, the researchers write, the potential danger of anti-Muslim rhetoric by politicians and others.
Only one video reduced collective blame. This was an Al Jazeera interview with a Muslim American woman who highlighted the hypocrisy of holding all Muslims collectively responsible for extremist violence. Specifically, she discussed the tendency by Christians to blame all Muslims for terror attacks, but not to blame all Christians for violent acts by extremist individual Christians. After watching this video, participants not only saw Muslims as less collectively responsible for extremism, but also showed less anti-Muslim prejudice.
To test whether the key ingredient of this video was the way it highlighted hypocrisy, the researchers asked more participants to reflect on their own (and White people’s) lack of collective responsibility for the actions of extreme individual group members, and they found this also lowered belief in the collective blame of Muslims, as well as reducing anti-Muslim prejudice, attitudes and behaviour.
It would be interesting, of course, to know how long the effects of a hypocrisy intervention might last in the real world. But, as the researchers note in their conclusion, the findings “contribute to a long tradition of research demonstrating that highlighting hypocrisy can drive behaviour change”.
Image: A Muslim protester holds a placard reading “Islam, Peace, Islam” during a demonstration outside Atocha Station against the recent Paris terrorist attacks on January 11, 2015 in Madrid, Spain (credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Stringer).