Empathy and attitudes: Can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group?

Publication Year
1997

Type

Journal Article
Abstract

Results of 3 experiments suggest that feeling empathy for a member of a stigmatized group can improve attitudes toward the group as a whole. In Experiments 1 and 2, inducing empathy for a young woman with AIDS (Experiment 1) or a homeless man (Experiment 2) led to more positive attitudes toward people with AIDS or toward the homeless, respectively. Experiment 3 tested possible limits of the empathy-attitude effect by inducing empathy toward a member of a highly stigmatized group, convicted murderers, and measuring attitudes toward this group immediately and then 1-2 weeks later. Results provided only weak evidence of improved attitudes toward murderers immediately but strong evidence of improved attitudes 1-2 weeks later.

Journal
Journal of Personality & Social Psychology
Volume
72
Pages
105-118
Type of Article
Journal Article
Full text

The following is an excerpt of the intervention methodology. For more information, please see the full text of the article on the publisher's website or through your institution's library.

Experiment 1: Attitudes Toward People With AIDS

This conceptual analysis led us to conduct three experiments to test the hypothesis that inducing empathy for a member of a stigmatized group can improve attitudes toward the group as a whole. In Experiment 1, we manipulated three independent variables in a 2 X 2 X 2 factorial design: (a) empathy for a member of a stigmatized group (low vs. high); (b) degree to which this person was responsible for being a member of the group (not responsible vs. responsible); and (c) scope of the group toward which attitudes were assessed (broad vs. narrow). Drawing on an example used previously, the broad stigmatized group was people with AIDS; the narrow subgroup was young women with AIDS. [...]

Method

Participants Participants for Experiment 1 were 96 female students in introductory psychology at the University of Kansas [...]. Using a randomized-block procedure, we assigned 12 participants to each cell of our 2 (empathy) x 2 (victim responsibility) X 2 (scope of stigmatized group) design. [...].

Procedure [...] On arrival, they were escorted into a research cubicle and given a written introduction that presented the study as a pilot test of a new programming idea for the local university radio station. [...]. The experimenter left participants alone to read the instructions, listen to the tape, and complete the questionnaires.

Manipulation of empathy. Empathy was manipulated by the listening-perspective instructions. Instructions in the low-empathy condition asked participants to [Audio Stimulus A]. Instructions in the high-empathy condition asked participants to [Audio Stimulus B]. [...]

Measuring empathic feelings for Julie. After listening to the interview, participants completed three questionnaires. The first listed 24 adjectives describing different emotional states and was used to assess empathic response to Julie's plight. For each adjective, participants were asked to report how much (1 - not at all, 7 = extremely) they had experienced that emotion while listening to the broadcast. The list included six adjectives used in much previous research to assess empathy, sympathetic, compassionate, soft-hearted, warm, tender, and moved [...], providing a check on the effectiveness of the empathy manipulation.

Measuring attitudes toward people with AIDS. The second questionnaire assessed participants' attitudes toward people with AIDS. [...] For participants in the broad-group condition, the questionnaire was entitled, "Attitude Questionnaire: AIDS Victims. [...], it contained the following seven items designed to assess beliefs about, concern for, and feelings toward people with AIDS [...]. For participants in the narrow-group condition, the questionnaire was entitled, "Attitude Questionnaire: "Voting Women with AIDS.'' It contained the same seven items, but for each item the phrase "people with AIDS" was replaced by "young women with AIDS." The experimenter remained unaware of which version of the attitude questionnaire each participant received.

Broadcast evaluation. Consistent with the cover story, the third questionnaire concerned evaluation of the pilot broadcast. It asked participants how interesting and worthwhile they thought the broadcast was and how likely they would be to listen to such a program. [...]

 

Experiment 2: Attitudes Toward the Homeless [...]

Method

Participants Participants were 46 introductory psychology students at the University of Kansas (18 men, 28 women) [...]. Using a randomized-block procedure, we assigned 12 participants to three of the four cells of our 2 (empathy) x 2 (victim responsibility) design and 10 to the fourth cell (low-empathy/victim responsible). [...] The experimenter then gave participants a sheet with listening-perspective instructions and left them alone to read these instructions, listen to the tape, read the background information, and complete the questionnaires.

Manipulation of empathy. Listening-perspective instructions to be objective or to imagine, [...], were used in Experiment 2. As before, the experimenter remained unaware of each participant's empathy condition. [...] When participants finished listening to the tape and opened the envelope, they found a background-information form. [...]

Measuring empathic feelings for Harold. After reading this form, participants completed three questionnaires. [...].

Measuring attitudes toward the homeless. The second questionnaire assessed participants' attitudes toward the homeless. This was the dependent measure. It contained 9 items, 6 of which closely paralleled Items 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 used in Experiment 1, simply substituting "homeless people" or "the homeless" for "people with AIDS." Anchors for all 3 items were 1 - strongly disagree to 9 = strongly agree. [...].

Broadcast evaluation and victim-responsibility manipulation check. Consistent with the cover story, the third questionnaire concerned evaluation of the broadcast. [...]

Experiment 3: Caring for Killers [...]

First, we examined the effect of empathy on attitudes toward a highly stigmatized group, convicted murderers. Second, in addition to our usual procedure of assessing attitudes in the laboratory immediately after inducing empathy for a member of the group, we assessed attitudes 1 to 2 weeks later in a totally different context. This was done by having a young woman unassociated with the laboratory session conduct a telephone survey on students' attitudes toward prison reform, ostensibly as part of a class project. [...]

Method

​​Participants Participants were 60 students (30 men, 30 women) in an introductory psychology course at the University of Kansas [...]. Using a randomized-block procedure, 15 men and 15 women were assigned to each experimental condition (low empathy, high empathy). [...].

Procedure

Laboratory session. Participants were conducted through the laboratory session individually. [...] The experimenter left participants alone to read these instructions, listen to the tape, and complete the reaction questionnaires. Manipulation of empathy. Listening-perspective instructions to be objective or to imagine, [...] were used in Experiment 3. As before, the experimenter remained unaware of each participant's empathy condition.

Measuring empathic feelings for James. After the interview, participants completed three questionnaires. [...].

Measuring attitudes toward convicted murderers. The second questionnaire assessed participants' attitudes toward "people behind bars." To fit the cover story there were three parts to this questionnaire, one for each of the groups from which interviews were ostensibly being drawn: Part 1 assessed attitudes toward convicted murderers serving life without parole; Part 2, attitudes toward white-collar criminals serving up to 5 years; and Part 3, attitudes toward teenagers temporarily detained for minor offenses. Part 1 was the major dependent measure. Paralleling the attitude items in Experiments 1 and 2, it contained eight items designed to assess beliefs about, concern for, and feelings toward convicted murderers [...].

Broadcast evaluation. Consistent with the cover story, the third questionnaire concerned evaluation of the pilot broadcast. [...]. Debriefing. After participants completed these three questionnaires, they were probed for suspicion, [...]. [...].

Telephone interview. All participants were contacted by telephone 1 to 2 weeks after they had taken part in the laboratory session. The contact was made by an undergraduate woman who had prior experience in telemarketing but no knowledge of the hypothesis of the experiment or of the experimental conditions. [...] She then read the following five statements and recorded the participant's response to each. [...] Once participants had answered the questions, they were thanked for their time, and the call was terminated. None of the participants indicated any awareness of the connection between the call and their prior laboratory experience, nor were they made aware of it.

Type of Prejudice/Bias
Country
Method