Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Examining Prejudice towards Middle Eastern Persons Via a Transformation of Stimulus Functions

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Examining Prejudice towards Middle Eastern Persons Via a Transformation of Stimulus Functions

Article excerpt

Since September 11th, 2001, the field of psychology has become increasingly interested in the effects terrorism has had on America. For example, there has been a substantial increase in acts of violence (Bar-Tal & Labin, 2001) and prejudicial ideation (Coryn, Beale, & Myers, 2004) toward Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent. Mainstream psychological accounts for acts of prejudice have included personality orientation (Crowson, DeBacker, & Thoma, 2005), and beliefs of perceived threats to the U.S., social dominance orientation, and self-categorization (Oswald, 2006). While these accounts attempt to isolate predictive factors for prejudicial ideation, they do not focus on observable behavior that is amenable to change. In fact, Sidman has said the "experimental, theoretical, and applied sciences of Behavior Analysis are untapped resources with respect to the issue of terrorism" (2003). He goes on to assert that "terrorism is a behavioral problem," for which the solution requires a basic understanding of its maintaining variables.

In a traditional behavioral account of terrorism, acts of terror and prejudice related to them would be solely governed by the consequences that follow these classes of behavior. For example, a Middle Eastern man who commits an act of terrorism would be reinforced by social contingencies (praise from fellow terrorists), the sight of a perceived enemy's suffering (images of pain following successful terrorist acts), and possibly by the media 's coverage of the act (instant fame and notoriety). In the same way, an American police officer who calls a person of Middle Eastern descent in for questioning based on his racial profile is also reinforced by social contingencies (praise from a like-minded social circle), the sight of a Middle Eastern detainee in custody, and perhaps a promotion (more money for working hard to keep his neighborhood safe from terrorism). Establishing operations (Michael, 1993) or setting events (Kantor & Smith, 1975) such as being deprived of attention for most of one's life or experiencing economic hardship would only serve to make the above consequences more salient.

While a traditional behavioral account explains how direct contingencies can shape prejudicial behavior and acts of terrorism, a more comprehensive account is needed. The traditional account does not address the fact that the targets of prejudice related to terrorism, innocent U.S. and Middle Eastern civilians, have never been directly paired with either the U.S. government or terrorist groups responsible for the 9/11 attacks, respectively. Some behavior analytic researchers have answered the call. In a paper published in 2003, Dixon, Dymond, Rehfeldt, Roche, & Zlomke outlined a more complex account of prejudice and terrorism and set an agenda for empirical studies to follow. Specifically, the article explains how the 9/11 attacks themselves, the resulting emotional responses of rage and hate felt by Americans, and the images of terrorists displayed by the media come to form a frame of coordination (they become equivalent). Through multiple exemplars of these relational frames, as well as frames of opposition and difference, this class is strengthened, resulting in the generalized prejudice Americans have come to experience. The article also offers an analysis of how young Middle Eastern men come to resent the United States and consequently enter a life of terrorism.

The above account stems from a Relational Frame Theory (RFT) conceptualization of prejudice and terrorism (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001). RFT suggests that verbally competent humans have the ability to categorize, evaluate, and compare arbitrarily related events, but they learn to justify these relations based on verbally abstracted non-arbitrary features of related events. For example, if two objects are randomly selected (e.g. a ball and a tree) and compared to one another (e.g. "How is a ball like a tree? …

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