-- Could prejudice be stopped by a quick chat? A new study looked at whether a 10-minute, face-to-face conversation can actually change someone's mind and make them less prejudiced.
The study, published today in the journal Science, had 56 canvassers visit 501 voters in the Miami area to discuss issues facing transgender people after an ordinance was passed to protect transgender people from discrimination. Those canvassing were from the Los Angeles LGBT Center and SAVE, a South Florida LGBT organization, and for the study were sent to see if they could find and counteract any backlash to the ordinance.
To effectively reach residents, the canvassers went through training developed by the Los Angeles LGBT Center that uses techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy to engage with people.
A similar study published in 2014 that received much public attention was retracted in May 2015 due to problems with the study's data first pointed out by the authors of this new study. The public attention and the subsequent retraction prompted much controversy at the time.
The canvassers in the new study approached each subject by listening, sharing and prodding them to open up about their own lives. After meeting the resident, the canvassers identified themselves, explained voters could vote for a repeal of the nondiscrimination ordinance and then asked voters to explain their views on transgender people. The canvassers then attempted a new kind of persuasion to get the resident to reconsider transgender issues. They simply asked voters to talk about a time when they were judged negatively for being different.
"The canvassers then encouraged voters to see how their own experience offered a window into transgender people’s experiences, hoping to facilitate voters’ ability to take transgender people’s perspectives," the study authors wrote. "The intervention ended with another attempt to encourage active processing by asking voters to describe if and how the exercise changed their mind."
The entire interaction took just about 10 minutes, and lead study author David Broockman said about 70 percent of residents who opened their door finished the entire interaction. After three months, the voters who took part in the initial conversation about transgender issues were much more likely to exhibit "positive" feelings toward transgender people compared to a placebo's group response. The results were not measurably different if the canvasser they talked to was transgender or not.
Broockman, an assistant professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, said the findings don't point to a "trick" at getting people to agree with you, but seem to show tapping into people's empathy can allow them to reconsider their position.
"It’s not as easy as here’s a script," Broockman told ABC News. "Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, some of the ideas are if you ask the right questions and have [people] think through their own opinions and behaviors, that can help people lead them to change their own minds."
An accompanying perspective published in the journal reviewing Broockman's study said the research is a key step in taking social sciences out of the lab and into the real world to see how real people are affected by these experiments.
"A face-to-face conversation is not minor when compared with other interventions used to influence political or social attitudes, like 1- to 2-minute mass media advertisements," wrote Elizabeth Levy Paluck, associated professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. "Considering both the absolute and relative importance of such a conversation, it seems plausible that a meaningful interaction could take place in a short period of time."
A similar study published in 2014, also in the journal Science, was later retracted over findings that the study sponsorship was falsified, survey incentives were misrepresented and statistical irregularities in the responses. Broockman and his co-author Joshua Kalla wrote that this new study helps "fill the void" by that retraction by showing with this work that prejudice may be combated with conversation.
"Several patterns in the present study’s data renew confidence that advocates could productively deploy the intervention strategy that we report," the study authors said.
Broockman told ABC News that more research is needed to see if this small study can be scaled upwards to affect a larger swath of people. However, Broockman said he was optimistic about these practices being used on a wider scale to help reduce prejudice.