A Muslim-style turban is perceived as a threat, according to a new study, even by people who don't realize they hold the prejudice, dubbed "the turban effect" by researchers.
Research volunteers played a computer game that showed apartment balconies on which different figures appeared, some wearing Muslim-style turbans or hijabs and others bare-headed. They were told to shoot at the targets carrying guns and spare those who were unarmed, with points awarded accordingly.
People were much more likely to shoot Muslim-looking characters -- men or women -- even if they were carrying an innocent item instead of a weapon, the researchers found.
"Whether they're holding a steel coffee mug or a gun, people are just more likely to shoot at someone who is wearing a turban," says author Christian Unkelbach, a visiting scholar at Australia's University of New South Wales. "Just putting on this piece of clothing changes people's behaviour."
Mr. Unkelbach largely blames one-sided media portrayals for the bias.
Hello -- yes. Have you ever seen Fox news?? But most of the people in the study didn't realize this prejudice:
In fact, the Australian study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, confirmed that people don't even realize they hold these biased views. When the true intention of the experiment was revealed, Mr. Unkelbach says participants insisted they were not prejudiced and must have reacted differently from everyone else.
"The most common response was, ‘I'm sure I didn't show that effect,'" he says."They're uncomfortable and I believe them -- people are not doing this willingly. If they could, they would control that. Here, people are almost the victims of what they are fed by their environment."
But before we sharpen our knives and turn on the media, it is quite possible that the "turban effect" does not reveal a deep-seated (and recently revived) prejudice, but rather our instinctual disposition towards inductive reasoning – that is, making predictions about the future on the basis of past experience. The fact remains that the attacks of 9/11, 7/7 and Madrid were committed by individuals in the name of Islam (albeit a perverted interpretation). Is it not then somewhat rational to take greater notice – even if unconsciously, as much of our instinctual reasoning takes place behind the scenes – of visual representations of Islam in the context of assessing threats, simply because the last notable large-scale incidences of violent attacks were committed by self-proclaimed Muslims?
The only problem, of course, is that none of these men were wearing turbans during their respective attacks, or in their portrayal in the media. Not only that, even though inductive reasoning forms the basis of our everyday reasoning, it is often fallacious, and in the current context it could prove particularly pernicious, if it leads to such simple and unthinking connections.
Ultimately, whatever Unkelbach's experiment may reveal about our prejudices or the structure of human rationality, it at least brings our unconscious prejudices and implicit assumptions to our attention. Only then might we begin to understand them and move beyond them.
Actually it will be interesting to see how Muslims (both in the West and in pre-dominantly Muslim countries) fare in this computer game (I don't know if there were any in the study). That will at least neutralize the cultural-prejudice variable and may isolate the impact of media coverage. And I'm note sure about the results. Actually I remember flying soon after the 9/11 attacks, and I saw two guys with long beards (disctinctly Muslim) boarding the plane. And my first thoughts were, "I hope they have been thoroughly vetted by the security". Of course, I laughed soon after realizing that many must be thinking the same about me - even without a beard. Any way, this is an interesting study.
So the moral of the story is that if a researcher asks you play a video game, just stick with Pac Man - or if you do want to shoot at something, try Space Invaders - who cares about those aliens (oh great - did I really date myself badly here??).