Neuroscientists have found, after strapping people to fMRI scans to measure changing levels of fear that images of out-groups elicit, that stereotypes are very malleable and capable of changing rapidly. Early theorists of stereotypes knew this all along, such as Walter Lipmann when he pointed out that stereotypes are the result of individuals conforming to situational demands and social customs, and not necessarily the result of deep hostilities held toward a particular “out-group.” Stereotyping is an emotional response to a perceived threat to the buildup of stress.
Importantly, neuroscientists have found that the introduction of positive images of “out-groups” does indeed lower levels of fear of the other, and it reforms the hardwired automatic processes. In one study conducted at a predominately white college, students were inundated with a flood of negative images of African Americans seen in ghettos and in gangs. Researchers found a spike in automatic stereotyping toward the entire category of African Americans. The researchers then introduced hundreds of positive images of African Americans seen at churches and in family and professional settings. The introduction of these images resulted in a lowering of fear and a significant drop in the level of stereotyping the students experienced toward African Americans on the whole.
While it’s one thing to show people a lot of images as part of a study, pop culture’s probably the quickest way to flood the average American’s zone with any kind of images and to show folks images (positive or negative) of people who are different from them in a sustained way. The piece cites the Muslim anthropologist on Bones, which has actually done a really nice job with its rotating crew of interns, of portraying not just Muslims, but African-Americans and working class folks as brilliant scientists. In any case, it’s nice to have scientific validation of the idea that pop culture can matter. Now, we just have to figure out how to use it in the causes of progressivism without sacrificing good stories.