In the past week, two different published studies have shed light on the psychological relationship between biased environments and how people respond to that bias. First, a Georgia State University study on racism that was published in the journal Psychological Science. Participants in a popular diversity training program had responded positively in the short term, but white participants reported that long-term, their sense of guilt and inability to change systemic racism paralyzed them from being more active about the problems that they recognized. So researchers responded by conducting an experiment. When told their efforts would definitely make a difference, students took a greater number of pamphlets to distribute; when told their efforts might make a small difference, they took fewer. So raising awareness of a problem does not mean people will necessarily become active: in this case, the students’ actions were directly tied to how much impact they believed they could make.
Second, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study on women confronting workplace sexism. In the study, both men and women witnessed simulated workplace prejudice subtly directed toward women. Some workers chose to address the comment, while others said nothing. Among those who confronted the sexism, women experienced boosts in self-esteem and feelings of empowerment and competence. For men, the result of speaking up was neutral.
Feeling helpless to change bias and discrimination can be overwhelming: it can drive a person to depression if they’re defeated, or can cause stress and emotional anxiety if the dynamics of the problem are particularly distressing. This first study shows that we’ll stand up if we believe we can make a difference; the second shows how good that standing up can feel. Together, they make a strong case for the power and importance of empowerment, and understanding that can be integrated on many scales, from diversity training programs and workplace policies to support groups and individual counseling. One person may not be able to change systemic problems, but changing the small corner of the world that you do have control over is worth it.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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