Mental simulation and sexual prejudice reduction: the debiasing role of counterfactual thinking

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Reducing prejudice is a critical research agenda, and never before has counterfactual priming been evaluated as a potential prejudice reduction strategy. In the present experiment, participants were randomly assigned to imagine a pleasant interaction with a homosexual man and then think counterfactually about how an incident of sexual discrimination against him might not have occurred (experimental condition) or to imagine a nature scene (control condition). Results demonstrated a significant reduction in sexual prejudice from baseline levels in the counterfactual simulation group. Importantly, whereas intergroup anxiety and motivation to control prejudice were not predictive factors, number of counterfactual thoughts generated independently predicted variance in prejudice reduction. Mechanisms for, and implications of, prejudice reduction strategies including counterfactual thinking are discussed.

Journal of Applied Social Psychology
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Journal Article
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Participants Participants were 76 students (86.8% female, 88.2% heterosexual,100% unmarried) at a southern university who participated for course credit. Mean age was 20.45 years (SD = 3.14). Ethnic composition was consistent with the diverse student body and included 55.3% European Americans, 23.7% Hispanic/Latin Americans, 19.7% African Americans, and 1.3%“other”ethnicities.


Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men Scale [...] It is comprised of 20 self-report items, with a 9-point response scale (1 = strongly disagree, 9 = strongly agree), and contains two subscales, Attitudes Toward Lesbians (ATL) and Attitudes Toward Gay Men (ATG). [...]

Experimental condition [...] Participants in the experimental condition were asked to spend 5 minutes imagining the following: [Verbal Stimulus A]. Thought listings, individually examined to ensure genuine counterfactual nature, were quantified.

Control condition [...] Participants in the control condition were asked to spend 5 minutes imagining [Verbal Stimulus B].

Intergroup Anxiety Scale [...] participants were asked,“If you were to meet a gay man in the future, to what extent would you feel the following [Awkward,Happy (reverse scored), Self-Conscious, Competent (reverse scored), Relaxed (reverse scored), and Anxious],” and responded to each item according to a 7-point scale (1 = not at all, 7 = very much). [...]

Internal and external motivation to respond without prejudice scales Motivation to respond without prejudice was assessed via an adapted version of a five-item Internal Motivation Scale (IMS) and a five-item External Motivation Scale (EMS) [...].

Demographics questionnaire Following primary measures, a questionnaire assessed demographic characteristics including age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and marital status.

Procedure After providing informed consent, participants individually and anonymously completed questionnaires [...]. They first completed the ATG to assess attitudes toward gay men at baseline. Next, participants were randomly assigned to one of the experimental conditions described above, following which they each completed the intergroup anxiety scale and again completed the ATG to assess post-intervention attitudes toward gay men. Finally, participants completed the IMS and EMS and the demographics questionnaire.

Type of Prejudice/Bias