Fear without borders
Following reading a news article about unrest in a far away place, we see minorities in the Netherlands in a more negative way. This was discovered by social psychologist Thijs Bouman.
Test subjects were given a fictitious article about unrest in Tajikistan, and when they thought it was located in the Middle East, they were more negative about Dutch Turkish and Moroccan people. When they associated the country with Asia, they were more negative towards Turkish and Indonesian people.
Bouman thinks this is a result of globalisation. We read reports from all over the world, but are insufficiently able to put them into a geographical context. And that leads us to generalise and make associations.
This effect is most apparent when there is a symbolic threat, which is a threat to our norms or lifestyle. These are, for instance, the association between Muslims in general and the attacks by ISIS.
Positive news does not have the same effect. That is because due to evolution, people are more focused on possible threats.
Bouman discovered it is almost impossible to guard against this effect. But journalists can prevent generalisations from happening by providing more specific information. The most important thing, however, is awareness: ‘Don’t think it won’t happen to you.’
Reading time: 6 minutes (1,279 words)
There were some test subjects who thought they had it figured out. They had just read a fictitious news article about radicalisation in Tajikistan – a country which, for the sake of convenience, had been situated in the Middle East. Some time later, they were asked questions about how positively or negatively they regarded Turkish Dutch people.
‘People would write remarks such as: ‘I know it’s your intention to make me think worse about Turkish people. But that’s not going to work.’’
Wrong: it did work. They were no more positive about Turkish or Moroccan people than the test subject who had not figured out the intention of the study, even if they knew that those minorities had nothing to do with the fictitious events in that country.
Carry over effect
It was one of the many tests that social psychologist Thijs Bouman used to research the so-called carry over effect. In other words: he wanted to know what influence coverage of far away events – such as Turkey entering the EU, the Arab Spring, or the attacks by ISIS – had on minorities in the Netherlands. ‘We do know that negative coverage about for example Moroccan people affects that entire population’, he explains. ‘But we didn’t know if there would be a similar effect when the coverage concerns people far away.’
And so, based on existing news coverage, he created that piece about Tajikistan – a country which almost nobody knows the location of. Sometimes, he would place the country in the Middle East, which would make his test subjects think more negatively about Turkish and Moroccan people. ‘And that difference was considerable’, he says. ‘It was a difference of ten or 20 points on a 100 point ‘feeling thermometer’.’
In other cases, the coverage would say that Tajikistan was in Asia. In those cases, Moroccan people were not affected, but his test subjects were less sympathetic towards Indonesian people. ‘Because they are associated with the group of ‘Asian people’’, says Bouman. After all, there is a reason his doctoral thesis which he will defend at the RUG on 14 January is called Threat by association.
In both cases, Turkish people were at a disadvantage because people apparently associate them with both Asia and the Middle East.
Bouman thinks it is a negative result of globalisation. The internet brings news coverage from all over the world straight to our homes, but people have a hard time placing the events in those far away lands in a proper context. Who has ever truly been to Tajikistan? Or Syria? And even when we have been there, we still don’t really know the country.
Then, we do the thing we always do when we encounter something we do not understand: we link it to something we do know. The result? Stereotyping and generalisations, which were stronger than Bouman expected. ‘For many people, that news coverage is none of their concern’, he says. ‘Not many Dutch people know very much about Tajikistan. And yet news like that influences how people regard each other over here.’
Moreover, the news concerning the threat of ISIS or the unrest in Egypt, for example, is not just contained to one article, but forms a continuous stream. ‘People are constantly exposed to it and the message is always the same. That is very damaging to the image of Dutch Muslims for instance, even though they continue to distance themselves from the events.’
The following fictitious text about Tajikistan was a part of Bouman’s experiment:
The fairly unknown Asian country Tajikistan is becoming an increasingly important subject on the global political agenda. This country, where traditional and anti-western sentiments are part of everyday life, is seen as the breeding grounds for extremist convictions.
Tajikistan (the red country on the map) is seen as a typically Asian country and is located close to countries such as China and Mongolia. Like many other Asian countries, it and its inhabitants are considered traditional. Recent United Nations reports indicate that there are frequent violations of human rights, in particular women’s rights. For instance, a majority of Tajik people support honour killings and the death penalty. People with western conviction are often also treated violently.
Many Asian extremist organisations, therefore, are seeking refuge in the country. Tajikistan’s lawlessness and traditional way of thinking make it ‘the perfect breeding ground for anti-western extremism’, according to the United Nations (UN). This is why the UN calls for close monitoring of this country.
He was constantly encountering the effect: he tested it using videos, added pictures, and collected newspaper articles. He focused on the Arab Spring, Turkey entering the EU, or the debt crisis in Greece. Time and again he found that the threat from far away is easily transferred to the minorities close by.
The effect was largest when it concerned a symbolic threat, Bouman noticed. A threat is symbolic when people are afraid their norms and values or lifestyle are adversely affected. The fact that the acronym ISIS contains the word ‘Islamic’ causes people to direct their fear at everyone they associate with Islam, which includes the innocent, moderate Muslims here. And these are the Turkish and Moroccan people, as well as the new influx of Syrian refugees.
Realistic threats, such as the fear of loss of jobs or income, were also transferable, but the effect seemed less strong in those cases.
Positivity doesn’t work
What is even more frustrating is that these generalisations get into our heads mainly when it concerns negative coverage. Should you give people an article detailing how well Tajikistan is doing, it would have very little effect on how people see minorities here. Bouman tested this with articles about the positive results of the uprising in Egypt. ‘Positive news is seen more and more as an exception to the rule’, he suspects.
‘People react more strongly to negative articles’, Bouman explains. ‘Negative news is something you might have to protect yourself from in your own environment. So you start looking around, especially when it concerns your children or your family. You’d rather be too careful than too open.’
Is that a result of human evolution? That people are programmed to react to danger? Bouman hesitates. ‘I haven’t researched that, of course’, he says with hesitation. ‘But it’s certainly possible.’
The results of that part of the study were quite disappointing, Bouman remembers. Even though people thought more positively about Egyptian people in Egypt when confronted with a positive article or video, associating that with comparable groups in the Netherlands did not occur. ‘You secretly hope it works the other way around, too’, he says.
That also means that it is very difficult to take the sting out of this problem. Intolerance is bad for society as a whole, but people cannot help but make sense of the world by making generalisations.
But Bouman does think something can be done. Journalists could provide more specific information in their news coverage. That would make it harder for people to make generalisations. ‘But I do realise that that’s hard – there isn’t always room to do that.’
You can also try to avoid those words that evoke these associations. Coverage of the fight in Syria should not mention the ‘Islamic State’ – which causes people to associate it with Islam. Instead, they should mention ISIS. ‘That is much more neutral.’
But the most important thing is realising that you, too, make generalisations. ‘Don’t think that it doesn’t affect you or you are impervious to it. It happened just as much to psychology students who study acculturation and minorities, which isn’t a group you would expect this from.’
That means you can only neutralise this problem by being aware of it. Bouman: ‘That might actually help a lot.’