Negative media reports about, say, IS, the Greek debt crisis or Turkey’s accession to the EU make us more intolerant towards related minorities in our immediate environment. Positive reports, on the other hand, do not have a positive influence on our image of these population groups. These are the findings of a study carried out by psychologist Thijs Bouman, who will be awarded his PhD from the University of Groningen on 14 January.
Bouman has demonstrated an unexpected negative effect of globalization: ‘Whereas globalization could increase our knowledge and understanding of distant countries, the complexity of that information in fact leads to misunderstanding and stereotyping.’ For example, if we read a news report about radicalization in Indonesia, we then have a more negative view of Dutch people of Indonesian descent and of Muslims in the Netherlands. Although they have nothing to do with that news or those developments, it relates to how we process news from so far away, Bouman explains. ‘We look for a way of giving those distant events a place, for example, by unconsciously linking them to associated population groups in our vicinity, to ‘outgroups’. Oddly enough, this only happens with negative news items. In the case of positive news, our views on local outgroups remain neutral.’
Bouman’s research included psychological experiments where test subjects read realistic news reports in which small details differed. After reading an item about radicalization in Tajikistan, subjects had a more negative perception of Moroccans in the Netherlands if Tajikistan was described as being located in the Middle East, and a more negative perception of Dutch people of Indonesian descent if Tajikistan was described as Asian. ‘We chose Tajikistan because almost nobody knows where it is’. The experiments also showed that test subjects who read news reports about Turkey’s accession to the EU also associated Dutch people of Moroccan descent with that item.
Negative feelings about local outgroups are prompted mainly by fear, either a fear of the worldview and the norms and values of the group in question (symbolic group threat), or the possibility that that group will pose a threat to the property or prosperity of the ingroup (realistic group threat). In particular, the symbolic group threat from afar, such as the religious extremism of IS, was shown to affect intolerance, in this case towards Dutch people of Turkish and Moroccan origin.
Bouman hopes that his research can help prevent intolerance that is prompted by news about a distant country: ‘If we want to prevent information in the media from creating this type of negative association, we have to avoid the word Asia if we’re talking about Tajikistan, or we should use the term IS or Daesh rather than Islamic State. And it is also important to be aware of the process that occurs in our minds – this might also help remove the sting.’
Thijs Bouman (Amsterdam, 1986) studied psychology at the University of Groningen. He conducted his PhD research in the Social Psychology department of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, where he is currently a postdoc researcher and lecturer. The title of his PhD thesis is Threat by association. How distant events can affect local intergroup relations. His primary supervisor is Prof. Sabine Otten and second supervisor Dr Martijn van Zomeren.
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