Foreign news, nearby consequences: How media portrayals of distant situations affect local group relations
“Muslim fundamentalists Egypt receive 70 percent of parliamentary seats” (NRC, December 3, 2011)
“Greeks are lazy and send in list a day too late” (PowNed, February 23, 2015)
“Fear of Islamist plan to take over Egypt” (The Times, January 3, 2011)
In modern society, you are continuously confronted with headlines like the ones above. News websites, newspapers, and television programs give almost instant updates about situations worldwide. Clearly, these messages influence how we perceive the distant groups involved (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood, Greeks). But do those messages also influence how we perceive others within our own society? In other words, do for instance Dutch individuals perceive Turkish Dutch citizens differently after reading about the Arab Uprisings or, even less related, about the Greek economic crisis?
The answer is: Yes. Within my dissertation, I studied this question within different (ongoing) contexts. The answer seems clear: negative or threatening news about a foreign situation is highly likely to have a negative impact on how people perceive groups within their nearby surroundings. Interestingly, these generalizations not only occur for clearly related groups (e.g., Turks in Turkey and Turkish Dutch citzens), but also in situations where a connection is fabricated or less clear (e.g., Tajikistan and Indonesian Dutch citizens).
Threat by association
People’s reactions towards news about foreign situations often generalize to nearby groups. These generalizations seem to occur specifically when nearby groups could be associated with the foreign situation. For instance, Moroccan Dutch citizens could easily be associated with the Arab Uprisings as their origins are within the Arab region. Indeed, multiple studies indicated that reading negative news about the Arab Uprisings made native Dutch individuals more negative toward Moroccan Dutch citizens (e.g., Bouman, Van Zomeren, & Otten, 2014).
When Tajikistan was presented as a Middle-Eastern country (which, in fact, it is not), respondents became more negative towards Moroccan Dutch citizens
However, this association does not have to be as obvious as in the example above. More trivial links between the distant and nearby groups seem to work as well. For instance, we asked participants to read a fictitious report about violations of human rights and radicalization in Tajikistan – a nation most of the respondents did not know much about. When Tajikistan was presented as being part of Asia, respondents became more negative toward Indonesian Dutch citizens. However, when Tajikistan was presented as a country in the Middle-East (which, in fact, it is not), respondents became more negative towards Moroccan Dutch citizens (Bouman, Van Zomeren, & Otten, 2015a).
In addition, perceived threats from Greece on the world economy induced negative feelings toward Turkish-, Moroccan-, and Polish Dutch citizens. One explanation for these generalizations is that perceived threats from Greece alerted Dutch respondents about potential economic threats from groups within the Dutch society, inflicting negative reactions toward them. In addition, people responded negatively toward Greece, and these negative attitudes generalized to nearby groups about which respondents held similar stereotypes (e.g., lazy, profiteers; Bouman, Van Zomeren, & Otten, 2015b).
The aforementioned studies indicated that negative and threatening news about distant situations can negatively affect how we perceive groups within our own society. We were interested whether similar processes occur for more positive news about distant situations. That is, does positive news about a distant situation cause more positive attitudes towards nearby groups? The answer seems to be no, or at least not as rapidly as negative news. Messages about positive outcomes of the Arab Spring (e.g., democratization, freedom) changed attitudes towards Egyptians, but did not generalize towards nearby groups such as Turkish and Moroccan Dutch citizens (Bouman et al., 2015c). Possibly, these positive messages receive less (cognitive) attention, are less prioritized, are seen as exceptions and as less diagnostic than negative news (for a similar argument see for instance: Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001; Rozin & Royzman, 2001).
Messages about positive outcomes of the Arab Spring (e.g., democratization, freedom) did not generalize towards nearby groups.
The question remains: How can we prevent these negative generalizations from occurring? Reports could provide more specific details about the distant groups involved and focus less on stereotypical characteristics (e.g., lazy, aggressive). This could keep the foreign situation isolated and detached from other (uninvolved) groups, preventing associations and, thereby, negative generalizations toward nearby groups. In addition, awareness of the fact that you might – unconsciously – generalize as well, might also stop these processes.
In sum, people have the tendency to generalize negative news about foreign situations into negative attitudes towards more nearby groups – groups you are likely to encounter in your daily life. These generalizations usually originate from associations between the foreign and more nearby groups, which can be unconscious and trivial. Accordingly, foreign news indeed has – mostly negative – nearby consequences. Being aware that you are also likely to generalize, could halt these processes, and keep the foreign news remote.
Thijs Bouman will defend his doctoral dissertation entitled Thread By Association: How Distant Events Can Affect Local Intergroup Relations on Thursday, January 14th, at 11.00 in the Academy Building.
Note: Image by www.lotldesign.nl
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370. doi:10.1037/1089-26126.96.36.1993
Bouman, T., Van Zomeren, M., & Otten, S. (2014). Threat by association: Do distant intergroup threats carry-over into local intolerance? The British Journal of Social Psychology, 53, 405–421. doi:10.1111/bjso.12046
Bouman, T., Van Zomeren, M., & Otten, S. (2015). When threats foreign turn domestic: Two ways for distant realistic intergroup threats to carry over into local intolerance. The British Journal of Social Psychology, 54, 581-600. doi:10.1111/bjso.12098
Bouman, T., Van Zomeren, M., & Otten, S. (manuscript submitted for publication). From global threats to local intolerance: The role of superordinate outgroups.
Bouman, T., Van Zomeren, M., & Otten, S. (manuscript in preparation for submission). Bad news spreads quickly, good news stays remote? The carry-over potential of negative and positive news about distant situations.
Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296–320. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0504_2