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Commenters exposed to prejudiced comments more likely to display prejudice themselves

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Comment sections on websites continue to be an environment for trolls to spew racist opinions. The impact of these hateful words shouldn’t have an impact on how one views the news or others, but that may not be the case. A recent study found exposure to prejudiced online comments can increase people’s own prejudice, and increase the likelihood that they leave prejudiced comments themselves.

The researchers surveyed 137 adults (aged 18-50) they brought in under the guise of a different experiment. The participants were then asked to read an online article that described a proposal being considered by the education commission. The proposal was to increase the number of small scholarships to support international students, specifically targeting students from East Asia. However, due to recent claims that some Asian students were caught cheating in their studies, the proposal’s future was uncertain.

After reading the article, participants were invited to offer their own feedback to the proposed policy. However, in order to post their own comments, they needed to scroll past what they believed were other people’s comments. The researchers randomly exposed participants to either a dozen fairly prejudiced comments about Asian students or a dozen anti-prejudiced comments defending Asian students and cautioning against generalizing negative feelings toward all Asians. These comments were taken directly from actual comments posted in response to the news stories described earlier. Participants then posted their own comments.

Participants then completed a reaction-time task that measures people’s implicit or unconscious feelings toward Asians as a group. They also completed some questionnaires measuring more conscious or explicit negative feelings toward Asians as a group. The data found that people who were exposed to prejudiced comments posted by other users showed an increase in their own levels of prejudice toward Asians by both reaction-time tools and in their written questionnaire responses. These individuals also tended to post more prejudiced comments about Asians themselves relative to when they had been exposed to anti-prejudiced comments.

“In such an era, it is important to understand how other people’s online comments can influence our own feelings and behavior toward others. Although it is unclear how long lasting such effects may be, it appears that other people’s bigoted comments can influence even our more implicit unconscious prejudice toward a group,” said Kumar Yogeeswaran.

“However, on the flip side, anti-prejudiced comments can have a more beneficial impact in reducing racial bias. These findings suggest that a prejudiced and anti-prejudiced online environment can both be influential in changing an individuals’ own level of bias.”

“Our research offers insight into some of the pros and cons of the participatory Internet and shed light on how our online comments can carry over to influence others.”

Hsueh, M., Yogeeswaran, K., & Malinen, S. (2015). Leave Your Comment Below: Can Biased Online Comments Influence Our Own Prejudicial Attitudes and Behaviors? Human Communication Research DOI: 10.1111/hcre.12059

4 responses

  1. Jacqueline Cutti-Carter

    It is not surprising that after a group of students were exposed to read prejudice comments against Asian students, their own level of prejudice increased. This is a perfect example of social-learning approach (Bandura 1977, 1986), we learn about many behaviors by observing other people’s behavior. We follow models, we imitate; many times we want to do something just because everyone else is doing it. Other people’s behavior became a norm or a rule. For example, we use formal language when other people use it and we might be colloquial when other people are more colloquial.
    In this case, the negative or positive behavior depended on the kind of information the different groups were exposed to; whether they were exposed to prejudice or to anti-prejudice comments toward Asian students.
    Albert Bandure, Dorothea Ross and Sheila ross (1963) studied the role of imitation for learning aggressive behavior. They asked two groups of children to flatted “Bobo” doll. One of the groups watched a film of a lady attacking the doll, in different aggressive ways. The other group watched a different film. Then the children were left in the room with the Bobo doll. Whereas the children who had watched the films with attacks on the doll attacked it themselves, the other group did not.
    We definitely must be more mindful of our comments; they might not only hurt some people’s feelings but also influence others in a negative way. We also have to be careful at the time of selecting role models and deciding what behaviors we want to imitate.


    June 27, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    • Thank you for taking the time to share pertinent studies, that was surprisingly thorough and extremely well thought out. I have to agree that we all need to be mindful about what we say. Of course the anonymity of the internet lends itself to the darker side of people, which is evident if you’ve ever spent time in twitter, facebook, youtube, or basically any social media based website.


      June 30, 2015 at 8:52 am

  2. Carissa Frerker

    Looking back on experiences in my own life, I can clearly recall times that I have been influenced by others’ opinions on particular topics. According to the encoding-specificity principle, the associations that we form at the time of learning will be the most effective retrieval cues later on (Kalat). Therefore, situations in which we learn of a specific topic for the first time through someone else’s experience, that memory becomes our strongest retrieval cue. Along with this comes the retrieval of that person’s opinion on the particular topic. Whether or not we intend for it to, those opinions effect our own views of that situation from that point on, based off on implicit memory. Implicit memory can include influences from direct conversations, indirect conversations in which you may overhear others discussing a topic, reading articles on the internet, or reading others’ responses to a topic (such as what is discussed in this blog). Often times, we can readily recall the information we heard about a topic, but struggle to remember where we heard it from due to source amnesia.


    June 28, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    • That’s an interesting point, it usually is easier to recall information than to recall the source. That could be one of the reasons it is so easy for misinformation to spread, because you can’t recall if where you got that information was reputable or not. I also think that as humans we are hardwired to want to fit in somewhere, so when we see people acting or in this case commenting in a certain way, we tend to do the same, a sort of on-line mob mentality.


      June 30, 2015 at 8:57 am

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