Log on to Twitter, open a newspaper or turn on the news and you’ll soon see just how prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment is, as well as how likely collective blame is to be placed on the group as a whole for actions perpetrated by a few Islamic extremists. Though American mass shootings are far more likely to be perpetrated by white men than Muslims, collective blame is rarely assigned to that group — instead, they are characterised as “lone wolves”, even when they explicitly belong to or espouse the views of neo-Nazi, white supremacist or misogynistic hate groups.
But now, Emile Bruneau, director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues have designed a simple intervention to reduce anti-Muslim sentiment — and both a month and a year on, the effect seems to have held.
In their new paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour, the team asked white, Spanish participants to rate on a 100-point scale how much they blamed Muslims for individual acts of violence perpetrated by extremists (specifically, the bombing of Brussels airport in 2016); 0 indicating they placed no blame on the collective group, and 100 indicating complete blame. Anti-Muslim sentiments were also measured, by gauging participants’ agreement with statements like “We should dramatically decrease the amount of aid we provide to refugees in order to deter them from trying to come to our country”.
Before completing these ratings, some of the participants received a “collective blame hypocrisy intervention”. These participants were asked to read three descriptions of violence perpetrated by white Europeans (for instance, the terrorist attack by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011) and then rate how responsible they felt the group was as a whole and how responsible they personally were. They were then given a description of the 2015 Islamic State terror attack in France alongside a biography of a Muslim woman who owned a bakery in the city and asked to consider how responsible she and others like her were.
Those who went through the intervention responded with an average score of 16 on the 100-point scale of collective blame — far lower than a control group that received no intervention, and which gave an average rating of around 44. The intervention group also showed reduced anti-Muslim sentiment compared to the control group.
Both groups then took part in the same rating procedure thirty days and one year later. Those in the intervention group continued to express significantly lower collective blame of Muslims after a month and showed a trend in that direction even after a year. And after a large terror attack perpetrated by Muslim extremists took place in Spain between the first and second stages of the experiment, the experimental group expressed less collective blame for the attack and less anti-Muslim sentiment than the control group.
The team has a number of suggestions as to why asking people to consider the hypocrisy of collectively blaming Muslims, but not white Europeans, for the actions of extremists was so successful (as we reported last year, the same team also found similar results in American participants). “This activity reveals to people an inconsistency that I think they’re generally unaware of,” Bruneau says. “Once they’re aware of it, a very easy way to resolve it is to decrease how much you blame Muslims”. This makes sense considering the intervention’s effects were strongest in those who had “preference for consistency” — those who are most keen to avoid hypocrisy.
Collective blame doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s unlikely that a one-minute intervention will be able to undo the vast amount of social conditioning that leads people to harbour explicitly or implicitly discriminatory views. But understanding the logic behind collective blame, and developing strategies to deal with it, could be one arm in a wider fight against prejudice.