We have been working on an innovative way to improve attitudes towards minority groups—by considering how people think about the mental processes of those who belong to minority groups. Although decades of research have produced a wealth of different approaches, reducing prejudiced attitudes continues to be a challenge. 

Thinking About Your Own Thoughts

Our research, conducted in Spain at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and at Universidad de Granada, focused on getting people to think about the other person's thoughts in two ways, the same two ways that you often think about your own thoughts:

  • First, one can have thoughts that are called primary cognitions. For example, if a person thinks 'This group of people always dresses very nicely,' this would be a primary cognition or thought.
  • Second, a person can also think about their own thoughts. If the primary cognition is "This group of people always dresses very nicely,' people may follow this with a thought about that first thought, in other words, a metacognition. An example would be, 'Am I sure this group of people really always dress very nicely? Yes, I'm confident they always dress nicely.' This second thought is a reflection in response to the primary thought and is therefore a metacognition.

How We Used These Two Types of Cognitions

How did we use these concepts to improve attitudes towards people in minority groups? We moved from the traditional approach of getting people to think about their own primary thoughts and metacognitions to encouraging people to think about the primary cognitions and the metacognitions that people from minority groups have.

We simply asked people to rate a few things about either what others generally think (their primary cognitions, like how people from this group tend to see the world) or what others think about their own thoughts (their metacognitions, like how people from this group realize there are things they don't know). This way, we wanted to focus participants on the cognitions or metacognitions of others and then to compare their responses to those of people who were asked to think about a minority person's clothes, not their thoughts. Afterwards, we asked everyone about their attitudes toward the minority group.

As we hoped, asking participants to think about either the primary cognition or the metacognition of minority group members improved attitudes towards minority groups, including Syrian refugees, South American immigrants, and Roma people.

We followed up with a study that introduced people to a fictitious outgroup. We recruited several participants at once (we'll call them the ingroup) and told them about a fictitious group that was different from them (an outgroup). Half of the ingroups were told that the outgroup had primary cognition, while the others were told the outgroup had metacognitions (in other words, more complex thoughts). Then, we applied the same primary cognition or metacognition treatment as before. Bottom line? Asking people to consider what the outgroup members thought about their own thoughts had a significant positive impact on participants' attitudes about those outgroups, especially in cases where people didn't already consider the metacognitive processes of these outgroups.

How Can These Results Be Useful?

Is it possible to use these findings to change prejudiced attitudes, promote egalitarianism, and enhance diversity in society? One approach is to incorporate metacognitive training into diversity and inclusion programs. This training could involve encouraging individuals to think about how minority group members reflect on their inner states and thoughts. The key here may be encouraging people to consider the mental processes of minority group members, which increases the perceived sophistication of their minds.

Considering the thoughts and metacognitions of minority group members provides a promising approach to reducing prejudiced attitudes and fostering positive intergroup relations.

For Further Reading

Santos, D., Martínez, R., Briñol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2023). Improving attitudes toward minority groups by thinking about the thoughts and metacognitions of their members. European Journal of Social Psychology, 53, 552–566.DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2922

Briñol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2020). Changing prejudiced attitudes, promoting egalitarianism, and enhancing diversity through fundamental processes of persuasion. European Review of Social Psychology31, 350-389. DOI: 10.1080/10463283.2020.1798102

David Santos is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at IE Business School (Spain). David is interested in metacognitive processes of attitude change, and how to apply the knowledge from persuasion to improve people's lives.