Treating Prejudice With Imagery: Easier Said Than Done?

  • McDonald M
  • Donnellan M
  • Lang R
 et al. 
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Commentary Exposure therapy, a commonly used treatment for anxi-ety disorders and phobias, involves exposing the patient to a fear-eliciting stimulus in the context of a safe and supportive environment (Foa & Kozak, 1986). Birtel and Crisp (2012) used this framework to develop a novel " treatment " for prejudice based on the idea that out-group members are an anxiety-provoking stimulus. Across three studies, anticipatory anxiety about interact-ing with a stigmatized out-group member (i.e., a person with schizophrenia, a gay man, or a British Muslim) was reduced if participants first imagined a negative interac-tion followed by a positive interaction, relative to when participants imagined only positive interactions. These results suggest that guided imagery might be a useful tool to reduce prejudice. These findings are also compelling in light of research in neuroscience demonstrating that conditioned fear may not follow the typical pattern of spontaneous recovery after extinction if extinction occurs shortly after reactiva-tion of the fear memory (Schiller et al., 2010). This work suggests that the activation of emotional memories pro-duces a reconsolidation window in which stored memo-ries are capable of being updated with new information. Given this convergence of theory and empirical findings, as well as the societal importance of reducing prejudice, we attempted to independently replicate Birtel and Crisp's findings from Studies 1 and 2a. Moreover, it is critically important to replicate and establish precise effect-size estimates when research findings may be used as treatment interventions. The effect sizes obtained by Birtel and Crisp for Studies 1 and 2a (ds = 0.76–1.08; see Table 1) are larger than those reported in other prejudice-reduction studies (e.g., r = .215, d = 0.43; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Precise esti-mates require large sample sizes (Cumming, 2012), but Birtel and Crisp recruited small samples of 29 participants (Study 1) and 32 participants (Study 2a). Therefore, we followed Simonsohn's (2013) recommendation that replication studies use samples that are at least 2.5 times the size of the original samples. Method For this online study, participants were recruited from Michigan State University's psychology participant pool. Study 1 included 240 students (46% male, 54% female) without mental-health problems (sample size 8 times larger than the original). Study 2a included 175 hetero-sexual male students (sample size more than 5 times larger than the original).

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  • Melissa M. McDonald

  • M. Brent Donnellan

  • Ryan Lang

  • Katie Nikolajuk

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