Study finds non-judgmental, personal approach can reduce prejudice

An illustration of a canvaser talking to a woman at her front door.
(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

Anyone who has tried to change another person’s prejudiced views knows it is a daunting task. Even advocacy organizations armed with dedicated volunteers, punchy talking points, and slick campaign literature struggle to reduce negative attitudes toward minority groups.

A new study co-authored by Yale political scientist Joshua Kalla in the journal American Political Science Review suggests an effective way to combat prejudice and build support for policies that protect minorities: engage people in non-judgmental, two-way conversations based on personal stories.

In three field experiments, Kalla and co-author David Broockman, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley, showed that a respectful, conversational approach, in which door-to-door canvassers commit to listening and sharing stories, produced significant and lasting change in people’s attitudes toward undocumented immigrants and transgender people.

Engaging in a non-judgmental exchange of narratives might seem like an obvious strategy, but it’s not how advocacy organizations generally try to persuade people,” said Kalla, an assistant professor of political science with a secondary appointment in statistics and data science. “Advocates often call out unacceptable views, which can intensify people’s resistance, or they make their case through talking points and related facts, which our work shows has little effect. We found that simply listening and sharing a relevant personal story successfully lessened people’s resistance and increased their openness to change.”

In the fall and summer of 2018, the researchers teamed with immigration advocacy organizations in Nashville, Tennessee, and Fresno and Orange counties in California to see if using the non-judgmental narrative strategy in door-to-door canvassing could help build support for policies intended to protect immigrants, such as creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In the summer of 2016, they had partnered with LGBT rights organizations to test whether the same strategy — used in door-to-door canvassing and telephone calls — could reduce trans-phobia and increase support for transgender-inclusive anti-discrimination laws in Atlanta, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Florida, and Scottsdale, Arizona.  

Kalla ’14 B.A. ’14 M.A. and Broockman ’11 B.A. conducted three randomized experiments during these two advocacy campaigns — one concerning immigration advocacy and one each for the door-to-door canvassing and telephone campaign for transgender rights. In each experiment, they randomly assigned real-world voters to receive a visit or a phone call from an advocate. Control groups received calls or visits on unrelated topics.

The advocates shared stories about family members who were undocumented immigrants or personal stories that emphasized treating others with compassion. Voters were encouraged to share their own stories, such as discussing an undocumented coworker, or an LGBT friend or family member.

The voters were surveyed weeks before and weeks after the conversations. To measure prejudice, voters were asked to rate their level of agreement to a series of questions, such as whether they’d feel comfortable working with a transgender person or whether they’d have a problem living in the same area as undocumented immigrants. Kalla and Broockman compared how policy views and prejudice changed in the voters who received the canvass from the advocates compared to those in the control groups who did not.

Across the board, they found a large and persistent increase in support for policies that protect minority groups and persistent reductions in prejudice toward undocumented immigrants and transgender people.

In the immigrant-focused experiment, they found a 6% increase in the number of people who strongly oppose deporting all undocumented immigrants. In the trans-phobia experiments, they found an 8% increase in strong support for the proposed anti-discrimination laws. The effects persisted months after the conversation, the political scientists report.

The researchers randomly assigned some voters to receive an abbreviated intervention in which they engaged in conversations with advocates that relied solely on talking points and related facts. They found no increase in support for policies protecting undocumented immigrants and transgender people among those voters.

The use of non-judgmental exchange of narratives was key to making this advocacy effective,” Kalla said. “It’s an effective way to persuade people to reconsider their views. We even found positive effects among conservative voters in 2018 when President Trump made fears about a caravan of migrants approaching the southern U.S. border to seek asylum a focus of the mid-term election campaign.”

The study, which was published Feb. 3, builds on a 2016 paper that Kalla and Broockman published that found that a single 10-minute conversation in which an advocate encourages an individual to take another person’s perspective reduced prejudice against transgender people for at least three months. This new research pinpoints the non-judgmental exchange of narratives as the strategy likely responsible for reducing prejudice, the political scientists said.

In a 2018 study, they’d found that campaign contact and advertising has essentially zero effect on people’s candidate choices in a general elections. 

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324