The Power of Positive Stereotypes

New research suggests that fostering understanding and empathy toward people with disabilities – such as deafness – can be as simple as following the “I like you more if I think you like me” rule.

Italian researchers Camilla Matera, Sara Dalla Verde, and Patrizia Meringolo from the University of Florence write in the 2015 Journal of Social Psychology that “the stereotypes a person believes [others] hold…about his/her own group” can affect relations between people with deafness and people without it. Their findings are based on a study using 96 Italian citizens who have normal hearing.

Participants were first asked a series of demographic questions to assess how much they knew about people with deafness. They then read a fictional newspaper which discussed how people with deafness felt towards hearing people, and then read a fake interview with a fictional person with deafness.

Some of the participants received a positive article featuring people with deafness “describing hearing individuals as welcoming, pleasant, happy, satisfied with their own life, and respectful.” Following, participants read a fake interview where a fictional person with deafness described hearing people as “friendly” and “sociable.”

Other participants received a negative article, featuring people with deafness describing hearing individuals as “oppressive and stifling, living superficially, not satisfied with their lives, and not respectful. “ Following, participants read a fake interview where a fictional person with deafness described hearing people as “unfriendly” and “closed.”

After reading the article and interview, participants were asked about their attitudes towards people with deafness. The researchers found that reading that people with deafness hold positive stereotypes about hearing people increased positive attitudes towards people with deafness among hearing women. Interestingly, hearing men were not significantly influenced.

Showing people, particularly women, their similarity with other groups can be an effective strategy for shaping positive stereotypes, and, as result, increase empathy. The researchers suggest that “if people perceive they have something in common with the outgroup, they might be more likely to believe that the outgroup members hold positive stereotypes about themselves, which could enhance attitudes towards them and improve quality of intergroup relations,” the researchers explain.

Journal of Social Psychology

Camilla Matera, Sara Dalla Verde, and Patrizia Meringolo, University of Florence

Posted: August 19, 2015