Self and Attitudes Lab

The research in the Self and Attitudes Lab focuses on investigating the mechanisms of attitude and behavior change, especially as they relate to improving health and reducing prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination.

1. Attitude and Behavior Change Processes

A major area of research examines the dissonance and self-persuasion processes that lead people to change, or resist changing, their attitudes and behaviors (Stone, 1999; Stone & Cooper, 2001; Stone & Cooper, 2003). Our research tests new predictions for dissonance arousal and reduction with an eye toward developing new intervention strategies that motivate people to adopt and maintain new attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Focella & Stone, 2013; Voisin, Stone & Becker, 2012).

Our current work focuses on the attitude and behavior change that follows from an act of “hypocrisy" (Stone, 2011). We create feelings of hypocrisy by inducing people to make a public statement about the importance of a specific behaviors related to health (e.g., using condoms to prevent AIDS and other STDs, exercising regularly, using sunscreen to reduce the risk for skin cancer). By itself, the advocacy is consistent with prevailing attitudes beliefs about the issue, and does not cause discomfort. However, when people are made mindful that they themselves have not performed the behavior regularly in the past, the discrepancy between their advocacy and past behavior causes the discomfort associated with cognitive dissonance. To reduce their discomfort, people become motivated to "practice what they preach" and take steps toward bringing their behavior into line with their “preaching” about the importance of the target health behavior.

The original research induced hypocrisy about practicing safer sex to motivate participants to increase their intentions to use condoms (Aronson, Fried, & Stone, 1991) and their desire to purchase condoms following the study (Stone et al., 1994; Stone et al., 1997). Our recent research focuses on the mechanisms of behavior change related to the risk for skin cancer (Stone & Fernandez, 2011). Another line of work examines vicarious hypocrisy, a process by which observing an in-group member act hypocritically about the use of sunscreen can cause highly identified group members to experience dissonance and become motivated toward the use of sunscreen (Focella, Stone, Fernandez, Cooper, & Hogg, 2016). In four studies, we found that that when highly identified in-group members hold positive attitudes toward using sunscreen, but then learn that an in-group member has been hypocritical about the use of sunscreen, in-group observers experience “vicarious” dissonance. To reduce their dissonance, in-group members are motivated to restore the integrity of the in-group by bolstering their attitudes and behavior toward the use of sunscreen.

2. Implicit Bias

We have several lines of research on the topic of "implicit bias," which we define as the quick, automatic and potentially nonconscious activation of negative attitudes and stereotypes about individuals and the groups to whom they belong.  For example, we recently published a paper showing that people express implicit prejudice against individuals with a tattoo (Zestcott, Bean & Stone, 2017), and that this form of implicit bias is difficult to counteract unless the person with a tattoo is wearing eyeglasses (Torrejon, Zestcott & Stone, in prep).  Other projects examine the mechanisms by which implicit attitudes guide behavior and how people control the expression of implicit bias when they interact with a stigmatized group member.  

Some of our work on implicit bias is with healthcare providers (Zestcott, Blair & Stone, 2016; Moskowitz, Stone & Childs, 2014).  For example, we examine the degree to which healthcare providers (e.g., medical residents, medical and nursing students) hold both explicit (or conscious) and implicit (or nonconscious) negative stereotypes that Hispanic and American Indian patients engage in risky health behaviors and do not comply with prevention, diagnosis and treatment recommendations (Bean et al., 2012; 2013; Zestcott, Spece, McDermott, & Stone, in press).  Providers also appear to hold implicit biases toward patients with specific diseases such as cervical cancer (Liang, Wolsiefer, Zestcott, Chase, & Stone, 2019).  Some of our research examines whether the implicit activation of negative stereotypes about a stigmatized patient group influences patient outcomes.  Our current grant from NIH funds research examining how medical residents communicate implicit bias toward Hispanic patients during a clinical visit.  

The second arm of our funded research develops and tests new approaches to training providers to control the influence of implicit bias in health service delivery (Stone & Moskowitz, 2011; Stone, Moskowitz, Zestcott, & Wolsiefer, 2020). We are developing and testing the effectiveness of a series of workshops in which we introduce providers to the psychology of stereotyping and prejudice, demonstrate that they hold implicit biases, and then train them to use strategies that may help to reduce the influence of implicit bias when they interact with stigmatized patients. 

3. Target Empowerment

Our lab also investigates strategies that empower stigmatized individuals to play an active role in the reduction of bias toward them and their group. Our studies test predictions derived from the Target Empowerment Model (or TEM, see Focella, Bean & Stone, 2015). The TEM combines the literatures on prejudice reduction and persuasion to propose three basic hypotheses: (1) Stigmatized targets can use implicit or “subtle” bias reduction strategies, like asking self-affirming questions or presenting counter-stereotypic information, as effectively as non-stigmatized sources, and these effects are mediated by decreased feelings of threat and more objective elaboration of the target; (2) Stigmatized targets are less effective than non-stigmatized sources at using explicit or "blatant" strategies for reducing bias, like confrontation, because they increase negative affect and create more negative impressions of the target; and (3) Nevertheless, stigmatized targets can use blatant strategies effectively when they are preceded by the early use of a subtle strategy as an "icebreaker".

One question in this work is what prejudice reduction strategies do stigmatized individuals want to use when they interact with someone who is biased against them and their group? In one study, we found that GLBT individuals showed more interest in addressing bias at work through subtle rather than blatant strategies (Schmader, Croft, Whitehead, & Stone, 2013). However, in two studies aimed at addressing racial and ethnic disparities in health care (Bean, Stone, & Covarrubias, 2014), we found that when Hispanic patients imagined interacting with a doctor who unambiguously endorsed a negative stereotype about their group, they expressed more desire to confront the doctor about his remark, and to present counterstereotypic information about themselves, compared with participants who imagined interacting with a doctor who made an ambiguous remark. Participants in the ambiguous bias condition, on the other hand, reported more desire to use strategies that facilitate a positive interaction with their doctor, like affirming or ingratiating him, or ignoring his remark. Thus, our findings suggest that in a health care context where the stakes are high, stigmatized patients may prefer to risk backlash and use direct strategies to address a health care provider's biases, rather than using more subtle approaches (that should be more effective).

Our research also indicates that stigmatized targets can use subtle strategies to reduce bias even among people who are highly prejudiced against their group. For example, in one study (Schmader, Croft, Whitehead, & Stone, 2013), we showed that drawing attention to a common-identity caused high and low prejudiced participants to select a qualified gay applicant for an interview more often compared to when the gay applicant’s statement did not use a bias reduction strategy. More positive attitudes and impressions significantly mediated the effect of the common-identity strategy on the decision to interview the gay applicant. Lizz Focella (Focella & Stone, in prep) found in her dissertation research that the use of "acknowledgement humor," defined as "addressing another's bias with levity," will cause high prejudice individuals to develop more positive impressions of a stigmatized target. Across three studies, the bias reduction effect was partially mediated by how much the joke put highly prejudiced perceivers "at ease" with the stigmatized target. These studies support the prediction that a target’s use of subtle strategies can effectively reduce explicit forms of bias when they interact with highly prejudiced individuals.

Nevertheless, blatant TEM strategies like confrontation can be effective when preceded by the use of a subtle TEM strategy (Stone, Whitehead, Schmader, & Focella, 2011). For example, in two studies, when an Arab-American target insisted that people take the perspective of Arab-Americans to understand their plight since 9/11, highly prejudiced participants formed more negative impressions and were less interested in meeting him, compared to when the target did not use a bias reduction strategy on his webpage. However, when the Arab-American target first asked questions on his webpage designed to self-affirm the perceiver's positive self-attributes, before using the confrontational perspective taking strategy, high prejudice participants formed more positive attitudes toward the Arab-American target and were more likely to want to meet him, compared to when the target used the perspective taking strategy or no strategy at all. These differences were partially mediated by changes in the perception that the target was being “confrontational.” Together, these studies support the prediction that the use of blatant prejudice reduction strategies can cause backlash against the target, unless they are preceded by the use of a subtle strategy as an “icebreaker” at the outset of an interaction.