A problem with interventions that use role-playing to beat prejudice is that bigots usually aren't motivated to take the perspective of the groups that they discriminate against. In a new study, Gordon Hodson and colleagues have tested the effectiveness of an unusual alien-themed intervention for reducing homophobia that involves participants taking the perspective of a homosexual person, without really realising that that is what they're doing.
Hodson's team tested the homophobic tendencies of 101 heterosexual students and then had 79 of them complete the so-called "Alien-Nation" simulation, whilst the remainder acted as controls and attended a lecture on homophobia. For the Alien-Nation task, the students formed groups of four to five members and imagined landing on an alien planet that's populated by aliens who look exactly like humans, but who don't allow any public displays of affection, and live in same-sex housing and reproduce by artificial insemination.
The participants answered questions about how they would cope with life on the planet and maintain their lifestyles. They also shared plans for how to behave romantically in secret and how to identify other humans. Research assistants then asked the participants whether the situation applied to any real-life groups. The participants failed to recognise the parallel with homosexuality, but the research assistants pointed out the comparison and drew attention to ways that people who are homosexual deal with the constraints of an intolerant society.
A re-test of the participants' attitudes towards homosexuality showed that those in the Alien-Nation group were more able to take the perspective of homosexuals, than were the control participants, and this in turn was associated with more empathy towards people who are homosexual, a greater tendency to think of homosexuals and heterosexuals as all belonging to the same category (being human) and ultimately to more positive attitudes towards people who are homosexual. The Alien condition participants' attitudes also remained more positive compared with controls at one week follow-up.
"The Alien-Nation simulation is easily administered, requires no extensive training, and reduces prejudice," the researchers said.
The intervention used in this study is reminiscent of a prize-winning educational DVD called "Homoworld" that was created by the British psychologists Neil Rees and Catherine Butler in 2008. The film depicts a heterosexual couple as they struggle to live in a world dominated by homosexuality.
Hodson, G., Choma, B., & Costello, K. (2009). Experiencing Alien-Nation: Effects of a simulation intervention on attitudes toward homosexuals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 974-978 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.02.010