Civil Liberties

Is the "Turban Effect" the New Bradley Effect?

Two recent studies conducted in two very different settings reveal a disturbing anti-Muslim bias among students.

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The election of the United States' first African American president has been welcomed as evidence the nation is belatedly moving beyond bigotry. But two new studies suggest that at least one unconscious prejudice -- a fear or dislike of Muslims -- remains very much alive.

"Islamophobia," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Wednesday at a two-day United Nations interfaith dialogue, "has emerged as a new term for an old and terrible form of prejudice."

When rumors began circulating during the recent presidential election that Barack Obama was a Muslim, observers from former Secretary of State Colin Powell to comedian Jon Stewart responded by asking, "Why would it matter if he was?" But whoever was circulating that misinformation was playing into a widely held prejudice -- one that has infected even the minds of sophisticated, educated Westerners. At least, that's the conclusion of two recently published studies, which detected anti-Muslim bias in two very different settings.

The first is "The Turban Effect," published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by a team from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. It suggests that simply noticing someone is a Muslim increases aggressive tendencies on the part of non-Muslim Westerners.

Psychologists Christian Unkelbach, Joseph Forgas and Tom Denson modified a pre-existing computer game in which participants are instructed to shoot at subjects carrying weapons, but hold their fire when they spot someone who is unarmed. The target subjects were of both genders and a variety of races, but, most importantly for this study, some were given a Muslim appearance -- that is, they wore a turban or the hijab.

The 66 university students who played the game -- 35 of them female -- were significantly more likely to shoot at Muslim targets. The targets who received the highest number of hits were Muslim-looking, non-Caucasian males; the fewest hits were for non-Muslim, Caucasian females.

"Interestingly, this effect could be demonstrated with otherwise liberal and tolerant Australian undergraduates, who would be most unlikely to espouse negative stereotypes about Muslims," the authors conclude.

The mood of the participants did influence the outcome, but not in the way you might expect. For students who felt angry, there was "an overall increase in shooting responses but not any selective increase in shooting at Muslims." However, those reporting a positive mood exhibited "a significant selective bias against Muslims."

This seemingly odd result confirms recent theories that positive affect tends to trigger a more spontaneous style of processing information, which in turn increases the influence of stereotypes. In other words, if you're happy and you know it, it's more likely your latent bigoted beliefs will rise to the surface.

The second study, just published in the journal Medical Decision Making, looked at American medical students and how prejudice plays into the way they evaluate patients.

A University of Missouri research team led by psychologist Jamie Arndt divided the doctors-in-training into two groups. Members of the first group were asked to answer questions about their own mortality.

All the medical students -- 29 women and 18 men -- were then asked to inspect fictitious emergency room admittance forms for patients complaining of chest pains. The forms included the subject's name, race and religion -- either Christian or Muslim -- along with a rundown of symptoms, including the level of pain they reported feeling. The students then assessed the heart-attack risk of each patient.

"The results indicate that when medical students are reminded of their own mortality, they render higher cardiac risk assessments for a Christian patient and lower risk assessments for a Muslim patient," the researchers concluded. In other words, the Christian patients on average were judged to be in more serious risk of heart attack despite the reported symptoms being identical.

"These patterns are in accord with many previous findings that concerns with death motivate people to cling more tenaciously to their cultural beliefs, to like people who support those beliefs and to disparage those who even subtly threaten such beliefs," the authors write.

Given the fact that "medical providers may frequently be confronted with explicit reminders of death," the study has "potentially grave implications," the researchers add. It is, in any event, another reminder that people are often ignorant of their own biases.

Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Ventura County Star.