The influence of exposure to group opinions on the expression of attitudes toward a minority group
Schlesinger, Lawrence Erwin
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This study is concerned both with the influence of exposure to group opinion on the expression of opinions about a minority group, and with differences in the effect of exposuxe to group opinion on individuals who vary in level of ethnic prejudice. Although face-to-face communication has been considered one of the most influential methods of changing opinions about minority groups, research indicates that inter-personal communication is successful only under certain conditions. Some factors that influence the extent to which a person accepts and conforms to the group opinion communicated to him are: the characteristics of the group, the amount of information communicated, the nature of the response elicited from him, and his own personality tendencies. Theory concerning requisite characteristics of influential groups stresses the relationship between the group and the recipient of communications from that group. The group may be viewed as a mediator of "social reality" by virtue of its perceived expertness, prestige, trustworthiness, or representativeness of majority or public opinion. Or the group may possess properties that instigate strong motives for agreement on the part of a member: it may be attractive to the recipient, or a means of need satisfaction. A third possibility suggested by research in this area is that, under certain conditions, changes in opinion may result from the process of communication among a collection of unrelated individuals forming a temporary group. It is hypothesized that the transmission of information and/or the process of communication sets up pressures toward conformity that are independent of previously studied group characteristics or properties. Under what conditions will these conformity pressures result in opinion change? The type of response that is presumably more susceptible to modification by group influences has been described as highly dependent upon "social reality". Support for such attitudes is maintained by the agreement of other persons. Research on characteristics of attitudes toward minority groups suggests that they are highly dependent upon this kind of social support. The magnitude of induced opinion change is related to the differential conformity pressures brought to bear on an individual. One source of these pressures is the amount of information about the group position to which the individual is exposed. "Amount of information" is defined as a combination of the number of group members holding an opinion and the number of times the individual is exposed to that opinion. The individual should change, reducing the discrepancy betveen his own opinion and that of the group, after each additional communication he receives about the group position. As the number of persons whose opinions are known increases, and if those opinions are uniform, increased conformity may be expected. Conformity pressures may also stem from internal sources, as a result of personality factors that contribute to a differential weighting of opinions received from others. Strongly prejudiced persons have been described as possessed of highly-compelling conformity needs, whereas less prejudiced persons have been characterized as demonstrating greater tolerance for conflict between their own position and that of others. The following hypotheses and predictions were derived from this reasoning: Hypothesis I: Individuals tend to modify their opinions about minorities in the direction of the perceived position of other group members. Prediction 1. If subjects' agree-disagree scores on anti-semitism items are obtained first under relatively private conditions, and then under conditions where they perceive the pro or anti-Semitic positions of other group members, their scores will change in the direction of increased conformity to the perceived group position. Prediction 2. If subjects' verbal responses to anti-Semitism items are classified on a favorable-unfavorable scale, their favorable-unfavorable assertions scores will change in relation to exposure to the group position. Prediction 3. If subjects' verbal responses to opinions communicated to them are classified on an acceptance-rejection scale, their acceptance-rejection scores will change in the direction of increased acceptance of the perceived group position. Hypothesis II: Magnitude of change in opinions about minorities is related to the amount of information (number of persons and exposures) received about the position of other group members. Prediction 4. If subjects' agree-disagree scores on anti-Semitism items are obtained first under relatively private conditions, and then under conditions of exposure to increasing amounts of information about the position of group members, the magnitude of change in their scores will be directly related to increases in the amount of information received. Hypothesis III. Highly prejudiced persons are more likely than those low in prejudice to change in the direction of the group position. Prediction 5. If subjects are classified into high, medium, and low prejudice groups on the basis of their responses to an anti-semitism questionnaire, opinion change will be greater in the high prejudice group than in the low prejudice group. To test these predictions, 84 subjects were recruited from junior and senior classes in the Division of Public Relations, Boston University. All subjects were male, either Catholic or Protestant, ranging in age from 18 to 24 years. To measure their prejudice levels, and to obtain initial measures on the five experimental items related to prejudice, a 30-item anti-Semitism questionnaire was administered to all classes from which subjects were recruited. Five volunteer subjects were assigned to each experimental hour, on the basis of the time each had previously indicated he would be available; students who were more than acquaintances were not scheduled together. Subjects were informed that they would participate in an experiment on "group discussion", to be carried on by note-writing. The topic of the discussion was "a minority group", and consisted of the five items previously included in the anti-Semitism questionnaire. The experimental treatments were induced by substituting a set of' fictitious notes, uniformly pro or anti-Semitic, for notes actually written by the subjects. The subject responded to each stimulus item by writing a brief comment on it and by recording his agreement or disagreement with it according to a numerical scale. The amount of information a subject received about the fictitious group position increased as he responded to each item. He received no information before responding to the first item. Then, with the second item, the subject received one note, presumably from another group member. Thus a subject receiving the pro-Semitic treatment learned that one other member of his group disagreed with that anti-semitic statement and expressed himself favorably toward Jews with respect to the item; the opposite was true for subjects receiving the anti-Semitic treatment. This procedure continued, with the subject receiving an increasing number of notes as he responded to each subsequent item, until he was informed of all other members' opinions about the last item. Three criterion measures were used. The change in agree-disagree scores from initial to experimental conditions constituted the opinion-change measure. Two content analyses of the subjects' notes were performed. A favorable-unfavorable assertions measure gave each subject a score reflecting his expressed opinion about Jews at each phase of the experimental procedure. An acceptance-rejection measure gave each subject a score, at each phase, reflecting his acceptance of the communications and the pressure to change his opinion, or his rejection of the communications and his attempts to exert pressure on others to change their opinions. The following results were obtained: Hypothesis I. Predictions stemming from this first hypothesis were supported. It was observed that changes in opinion followed exposure to the position of members of a temporary group. These opinion changes not only were specific to the issues discussed, but also generalized to the affective orientation expressed toward the object of the opinions. This was indicated by the favorable-unfavorable assertions scores, which changed in the direction of the group position. It was postulated that conformity pressures arise both from the cognitive content of communications the subjects receive and from the communication process itself. As the changes in acceptance-rejection scores demonstrate, these conformity pressures were reflected in the increased acceptance of opinions communicated to the subjects. Hypothesis II. There was a substantial trend for magnitude of opinion change to increase as the number of uniform communications received from group members increased. However, this result held only for subjects exposed to the anti-Semitic treatment. For those receiving the proSemitic treatment, magnitude of change was severely limited by a "ceiling" effect. Hypothesis III. No differences in the amounts of opinion change exhibited by subjects in the high, medium, and low prejudice groups were indicated. However, subjects in the high prejudice group showed a strong tendency to perceive themselves as closer to the group position than did subjects in the other two groups. This suggests that highly prejudiced individuals may attempt to allay anxiety about non-conformity by minimizing their perceived deviation from the group position. These findings indicate that the process of communication between members of an equal-status temporary group leads to conformity pressures and to subsequent changes in the expression of opinions about a minority group. These conformity pressures increase during the communication process, as a group member receives and responds to successive communications indicating the increasing uniformity of the group position. Results concerning amount of change as a function of prejudice level suggest that highly prejudiced persons defend themselves against discrepant opinions by minimizing the amount of perceived discrepancy.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University