Can a TV sitcom reduce anti-Muslim bigotry?

Research by social psychologists suggests that entertainment media that depicts Muslims in a 'relatable' way can reduce feelings of prejudice.

Christopher Brown/AP
Cast members rehearse on the set of 'Little Mosque on the Prairie,' a sitcom about a makeshift mosque in a small Canadian prairie town, taped at a studio outside of Toronto, in 2006.

Countering prejudice might be as easy as kicking back with the right sitcom.

That's according to new research that suggests media that depict Muslim characters in a positive, relatable way, can counter prejudiced attitudes toward Muslims.

"Entertainment media...are likely to be one of the most effective ways to improve intergroup relations and promote diversity," says Sohad Murrar, a doctoral candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For her research, Ms. Murrar had participants watch "Little Mosque on the Prairie," a Canadian sitcom that ran from 2007 and 2012 about a Muslim community living in Saskatchewan. Another set of participants, a control group, watched "Friends," a show with an all-white cast. Murrar collected measures of prejudice before and after the sitcom viewing.

The result: Those who watched "Little Mosque" had more positive attitudes toward Muslims both immediately after the viewing and four to six weeks later.

A second experiment found that people who watched a short music video that portrayed relatable Muslims showed less prejudice than participants who had completed a number of established prejudice interventions.

"Entertainment media play a critical role in shaping people's feelings, attitudes and behaviors," says Murrar, "Narratives that promote diversity and positive social change can improve...relations by...reducing bias and increasing identification with minority groups."

“Research studies have shown that an increase in positive representations of minority characters in our mass media, especially television, can help people relate to others, especially those perceived as very different from them on the basis of race, nationality, religion, sexuality, etc," says Kavita Daiya, a visiting chair in the humanities at Albright College in Reading, Penn.

"By making others relatable – whether they are gay, black, or Muslim – these representations can reduce viewers’ prejudice."

That's because social scientists have found that the best way to counter negative stereotypes of minority groups is through interaction between majority and minority groups, a principle known as the intergroup contact theory.

"Research has shown that one of the most effective ways to reduce stereotyping and prejudice is to interact with others who are different from you," Naomi Ekas, a developmental psychologist at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, told the Christian Science Monitor last year.

But in the real world, people tend to socialize with others who look and think like them. In fact, most white Americans have just one black friend, one Latino friend, and one Asian friend, and overall, 91 percent of their friends are white, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Similarly, the social circles of African-Americans are 80 percent black.

In other words, it's difficult to get folks to socialize with those who are different, which is the key to countering prejudice.

That, reports NPR's Maanvi Singh, is where television comes in.

"Psychologists say it's not uncommon to think of fictional characters as your friends," says Ms. Singh. "They call these attachments parasocial relationships, and a growing body of research suggests there may be more to these connections than we realize. It turns out that as we grow emotionally attached to characters who are part of a minority group, our prejudices tend to recede."

There is precedent for using TV characters to achieve this goal. Researchers have shown that exposure to gay TV figures, such as Will in "Will and Grace," decreases bias against gay people. The same may apply to black TV figures such as Terrence Howard on "Empire," and even autistic characters like the new Sesame Street muppet Julia.

Studies by researchers at the University of Minnesota back this up. In the studies, researchers had 475 college students watch episodes of Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” NBC’s “Will & Grace” and HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” In all three instances, the researchers saw a significant reduction in anti-gay prejudice after the viewing.

"Certainly, from a psychological perspective, If entertainment media can be effective at reducing prejudice towards one group, it should be effective at doing so towards any group," says Murrar.

Of course, it can't be just any entertainment media, cautions Dr. Daiya. Minorities cast in negative roles only serve to cement stereotypes, she says.

"If the only representations in news media are of Muslims as violent, or African Americans as gangsters, then they are simply perpetuating a harmful stereotype which can lead to violence," she says. "If on TV we see more Muslim men, women and children, all negotiating religion, culture, work, friendship, love, and identity in very different and complicated ways, then we can open up a dialogue about how, like Christians, Jews, and Buddhists, there are many different kinds of Muslims."

The key, she says, is to present minorities as nuanced, three-dimensional people – as they are in real life.

"So if we have more stories about, if we see more different Muslim experiences in mainstream media, in all their complex diversity, then we can reduce prejudice – we would see more people who have a complex understanding of our shared humanity."

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