Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"The turban effect" - Media coverage and the resulting Islamophobia

So it turns out that people wearing turbans are a better target in computer games than those without turbans. It must be because it increases the cross-section of the target. On a serious note, here is an interesting study that finds that a turban or a hijab is perceived as a threat - often at a subconscious level:

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."

Read the full story here. And over at Guardian, Jonathan Birdwell follows up on this study and brings up an excellent point:

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??).


Don said...

One of the most fun articles that was debated in my Embodied Cognition course at Edinburgh focused around an article on the effects of media violence on conscious and unconscious control. The author argued that violent media produced an unconscious "action-readiness", and as such should be kept under more strict guidelines (akin to those for pornography).

That would be a good background article for this, but for a decent analysis of the media itself, have you seen Reel Bad Arabs? It was produced by the Media Education Foundation in Northampton, so it's a pretty decent piece of video. It has all sorts of clips (most of which are from movies I've seen) about the negative portrayal of arabic characters. I wonder if I should find a copy of it and count the turbans...

Also, you're not dating yourself with the Space Invaders reference. You can just pretend you were talking about Space Invaders Extreme!


Anonymous said...

I remember a similar study that showed the unconscious biases that underlie all our cognition. Similar results came up between races. When presented with the findings, people had the same reactions - not wanting to be racist in this instance. Once they became aware of the biases they consciously started to adjust for them. What I found most interesting was that when people got to spend more time interacting with those they were biased against the effect lessened. They also created mixed-race basketball teams and the results showed that the biases were more ingroup versus outgroup rather than racially motivated. This made sense, as during our evolutionary history groups evolved in isolation from other 'races' so when there were biases against people of another colour, the colour acted more as a signifier of 'not us' rather than it being an inbuilt mistrust of the colour itself. So if you could identify with someone as part of your own group, colour didn't matter.
Of course, one cannot be as optimistic when it comes to matters of religion, as religion functions to create a group identification, a de facto us v. them. It becomes that much harder to identify if one party looks upon the other as an infidel or potential terrorist or whatever the case may be. The biggest danger would seem to be any kind of ghettoization.

Salman Hameed said...

yes..of course, I was talking about Space Invaders Extreme!!

Here is a link to the first 10 minutes of Reel Bad Arabs.

Of course, one cannot be as optimistic when it comes to matters of religion, as religion functions to create a group identification, a de facto us v. them.
But in theory, shouldn't this be easier amongst religions as, unlike race, there are no clear visible markers (of course, turbans, rituals, places of worship, and public prayers provide those markers)?

Anonymous said...

I suppose I was thinking of how many religions instruct their believers to avoid association with non-believers for fear of being influenced. The more devout people are, the more they they seem to take these things to heart.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but the only people I know who wear turbans are Sokhs (I'm in the UK). The conscientious Muslims I know tend to wear those flat caps (like a squashed fez) - so what does that say?

Salman Hameed said...

Yes, but the only people I know who wear turbans are Sikhs

And Sikhs are in equal danger in this computer game. Actually, you are right about the flat caps. However, turbans have become more of a symbol because of the attire in Afghanistan.

ungtss said...

A few questions unanswered by the article -- how significant was the difference, was the difference distributed equally among participants or concentrated in a few? And finally, did they have a control to isolate bias against the unfamiliar? Like say combat helmets or different races? All of these are important issues I would think before we start concluding that there's widespread turban bias about ...

ungtss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Salman Hameed said...


You have raised valid points, but usually, these controls are part of experiments. The paper has been accepted for publication, so we can check some of these things when it comes out.

ungtss said...

Will be interesting to see:).

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