Attitudes about Others Can Be Contagious
Imagine walking into your new workplace on the first day. As you get to know your new co-workers you see that people do not seem to be as friendly with Steve. Although nobody actually says anything to you about Steve, might the subtle difference in the way they treat him impact your attitudes toward Steve? Most of us like to think that our attitudes about others are based on our own thoughtful character assessments. We do not like to think that our attitudes are merely a reflection of the attitudes of our peers. But maybe they are. To examine whether people can catch attitudes, my colleague Sylvia Perry and I conducted a series of studies looking at how our attitudes are impacted by the attitudes of people around us.
In these studies we asked adults to watch silent videos of social interactions between two people. Some of the adults saw people responding to someone (let’s call him Steve) in a warm and friendly way, but other adults saw people responding to Steve in a more cold, unfriendly way. But, Steve always behaved neutrally. So this means that Steve behaved the same no matter how he was treated.
Across all three of our studies (and over 1,000 research participants) people liked Steve better when others were warm and friendly to him. This means that people tend to favor a person who is treated better by others over a person who is treated worse.
We also were interested in whether people realized that this happened. Do people know that they judge others based on the treatment they witness? Our studies suggested that they don’t. The majority of our research participants reported that the way Steve was treated in the video did not influence their attitudes towards him.
Instead, most of the participants believed that they liked (or disliked) Steve because of how he behaved in the video. This is even though we edited the videos to make sure that Steve behaved in exactly the same way, regardless of how he was treated by others.
So our research suggests that we judge people based on how other people treat them and we don’t realize that we are doing that.
This research shows that people can watch others interacting and conclude that people who are treated better not only are better, but also deserve to be treated better. This can reinforce biases and prejudice. Perhaps by bringing these tendencies to light, we can begin to develop strategies to work against them. So the next time you find yourself liking or disliking someone you don’t even know, maybe take a moment to ask yourself why and make sure that you aren’t being biased.
For Further Reading
Skinner, A. L., & Perry, S. (2020). Are attitudes contagious? Exposure to biased nonverbal signals can create social attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(4), 514-524. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219862616
Skinner, A. L., Olson, K. R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2020). Acquiring group bias: Observing other people’s nonverbal signals can create social group biases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(4), 824-838. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000218
Skinner, A. L., Meltzoff, A. N. & Olson, K. R., (2017). “Catching” social bias: Exposure to biased nonverbal signals creates social biases in preschool children. Psychological Science, 28, 216-224. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797616678930
Allison L. Skinner-Dorkenoo is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. Her research examines how prejudices are established, maintained, and facilitated through situational cues in our social environments.