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The Dharun Ravi Verdict: Lessons on Reducing Prejudice and Bullying

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
March 16, 2012

Dharun Ravi verdictA verdict has been reached in the Dharun Ravi trial. The ex-Rutgers student faced a series of charges, including bias intimidation and invasion of privacy, after he used a webcam to watch his college roommate Tyler Clementi kissing a man. The incident drew international attention after Clementi killed himself, raising difficult questions about homophobia, bullying, and the level of tolerance and diversity in American colleges. This week, we spoke with RSF Visiting Scholar Elizabeth Paluck about the Ravi trial and its implications. Paluck, a social psychologist at Princeton, studies prejudice and intergroup conflict reduction and has used large-scale field experiments to test theoretically driven interventions.

Q: A large part of the Dharun Ravi trial centered on the intentions and actions of Tyler Clementi’s peers—what they thought about his homosexuality, what they said to him and others about it and how they acted around him. What do we know about the importance of peer influence on prejudice and attitudes in school settings?

A: We think that peers have a strong influence, especially because much of the behavior that we care about unfolds in situations that are dominated by peers. Peers exert their influence by setting a standard, through their own behavior or expressions of belief, about what is appropriate and typical to do in that situation. In my field, that is what we call a social norm--a perception of what is appropriate and typical to do in the situation. Sometimes these peer-based social norms are so pervasive across situations that students internalize them as private attitudes. But the powerful thing about peer influence is that it can exert a pressure on students to behave in ways that they normally would not, or that go against the student's private attitudes.

Students report in surveys that they believe if they stand up against prejudice or bias then their peers will not like them as much. Other research shows that they are right! In those studies, students who object to teasing and harassment lose a bit of face, of their reputation, and are liked a little bit less. This is not to say that being an active bystander is a lost cause. Students have ways of shooting down prejudice or bias that can preserve their reputation, and in fact many of them do this every day, by supporting the target of harassment, or calming down someone who is doing the harassment. Many programs that urge students to stand up, speak out, are a bit less sensitive to this fact than they should be. Students can have a major positive influence on one another, and I think they have some great strategies for doing this in a sustainable way.

Q: In a 2011 paper, you looked at whether tolerance could be spread through student leaders who were trained confront expressions of prejudice. Give us a snapshot of some of the major findings and their implications for combating bullying.

A: I found that student leaders' behavior (which included confronting expressions of bias but also speaking to targets of harassment, or seeking adult help in certain situations) spread to other students in their social network; for example, the friends of trained student leaders were more likely to sign a website petition advocating for gay rights than were the friends of student leaders who were randomly assigned to wait for the leadership and outreach training. Interestingly, the trained student leaders did not influence attitudes in the same way--they were only able to encourage close friends to think like they think. However, I was encouraged by the behavioral finding, because of the theoretical stance that I take, which is that harassment is not necessarily caused by your personal beliefs or attitudes, but by the behavior of your peers, and your perceptions of the behavior of your peers.

So, a bottom line implication is that students are quite sensitive to the ways in which important peers are behaving, and they figure out what is acceptable and desirable in a school situation by watching these peers' behavior. Students will try not to deviate too much from the behavioral standard their peers set, ie, from the peer social norm. In a current project with Hana Shepherd of Princeton University, we have been using social network analysis to determine which student leaders are most influential over these perceived social norms of harassment, and our results so far have been very promising when we've tested whether those students can in fact change students' perceptions of harassment norms at the school.

Q: After Clementi’s suicide, columnist Dan Savage launched the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, which posted a series of short public service announcements from celebrities and other activists aimed at gay teenagers. You’ve looked at the ways entertainment and media can be used to reduce bias – how effective can this medium be in reducing prejudice?

A: I think that media can set in motion a very important process, which is the perception that certain ideas or behaviors are typical and desirable in your society. When a media campaign takes off, and particularly when it is endorsed by the people around you, it can change your perception of social norms, meaning your perception of what behaviors are typical and desirable. I've studied this approach to changing people's behavior, and I would contrast that to other types of approaches that target a person's private beliefs or attitudes. Because behavior is linked so closely to our perceptions of societal and especially peer approval, I've suggested that to change prejudiced behavior, it may be more fruitful to target social norms than personal beliefs. Put simply, you should convince someone that their peers no longer support gay bashing, rather than convince the person that they, personally, should not support gay bashing. The It Gets Better campaign has the potential to do this, because students observe that it is a trending, successful media phenomenon. Students may also notice their friends tweeting about it, sharing it on Facebook, or discussing it positively at school. However, if a student's close friends told him that they thought the It Gets Better project was stupid, I would say that this would weaken the campaign's effect. We need reinforcement in our immediate environments; media cannot be the ultimate cure because it operates at a bit more of a distance.

Q: The Ravi trial has also raised questions about the best way to deal with bullying and bias intimidation in schools and colleges. One idea is to increase the use of diversity training seminars, which have become fixtures in the American corporate world. You wrote a paper in 2006 examining results from these sessions – how effective are they? Do diversity trainings merely encourage people to express stereotypes?

A: The story of diversity trainings is a depressing one to me as a social scientist, because our field and the diversity training industry has never really tried to test the efficacy of these trainings very rigorously. There are many scholarly critiques of the diversity training industry, but mine focus on whether or not we have actually learned anything about whether they work, whether they are useless, or worse, if they provoke a backlash. My review of many of these programs led me to believe that hypothetically, some of them could work, but also that some of them might really backfire and produce resentment, cynicism, or callousness. Another recent review of diversity trainings by a group of sociologists (Kalev, Dobbin, & Kelly, 2006) showed that advancement of women and minorities is not correlated with one-off trainings, but rather more systemic changes in an organization, specifically full time positions for a person whose job it is at the organization to ensure that women and minorities are fully integrated and given a fair shot at advancement. Employing someone full time to worry about this, someone who is legitimate and integrated into the organization, produces more long term meaningful change, according to their research.

My bottom line is that we have a lot of creative, experienced, and hard working advocates out there, and we should be assessing the concrete behavioral consequences of what they do in schools and organizations. I'm also a big advocate of social scientists taking their carefully constructed theories out into the field and testing their efficacy in the interest of creating more inclusive and supportive environments at school and work. If we have ideas about what creates inclusion and equality, these should be tested in the settings that could use them. There isn't enough of this kind of translational research from the ivory tower to the world, to my mind.

Q: Social psychologists and policymakers have long been interested in finding ways to reduce prejudice. What is your assessment of the literature on this subject? Are we any closer to practical, effective interventions? What are some promising approaches on the horizon?

A: I can be a bit of a downer when it comes to assessing the state of the art in the prejudice reduction field. In the review I wrote with Donald Green, we concluded on the basis of over 900 research reports that we just don't have much evidence (showing positive, neutral, or negative effects) of whether or not prejudice reduction interventions are working. In short, we just don't know what works. This is obviously not because of a lack of research, but more because of the types of research methodologies deployed when researchers are trying out whether there are observable, behavioral effects. There isn't a very big body of evidence on real world interventions using research methods that allow for inferences about cause and effect, showing that know that x intervention can have y behavioral effect in the real world. Many other interventions are contained to laboratory tests with college students, and their translation to real world contexts is unknown. However, I am optimistic about the future involvement of social scientists, including psychologists like myself, in assessing prejudice reduction programs. This kind of applied work is growing and gaining more recognition. I also think that there are exciting developments in the social psychology literature that could lead to promising approaches to prejudice reduction. One research program pursued by a few different working groups, for example, considers the kinds of interventions that increase vs. reduce intergroup tensions, and in particular, considers when increased tensions could be productive, in the interest of provoking social change efforts.