Want to end prejudice? Watch a sitcom

Story highlights

  • A new study found people who watched a sitcom with positive depictions of Muslims had less bias after watching the show
  • When tested several weeks later, the attitudes toward Muslims improved

(CNN)Ending prejudice may be as easy as turning on your television. Depending on the program, it just might change your view of the world for the better.

Science has shown that exposure to certain programs can make a huge impression, especially if you've had limited exposure to a particular group in the past. This latest study presented to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology found a nationally representative sample of people who watched some episodes of a show called "Little Mosque on the Prairie" had less prejudice toward Muslims and Arabs after watching the show.
    "Little Mosque on the Prairie"
    This sitcom depicts life in a new mosque in small-town Canada. The characters are positive and fight over issues common in many spiritual communities: what dish to cook for a big celebration or what role women should play in the service. While the group experiences prejudice from airport security and from a radio host in the town, the characters handle the experiences with good humor and the joke is on those who are prejudiced.
    When the group in the experiment that watched "Little Mosque" were tested about their feelings, their attitude had shifted and was more favorable than the other group that had watched a sitcom with a predominantly white cast. As a control in the experiment, the other group watched "Friends."
    What was even more interesting was that the attitude shift seemed to stick. The group still seemed more favorable to Muslims even four to six weeks after they watched the program.
    "We thought the effect might be dampened with the groups actual media exposure prior to watching the program. Typically Muslims and Arabs are shown on television as more violent and aggressive and are shown in more stereotypical ways like as terrorists," said Sohad Murrar, the study author. Murrar is a graduate student studying social and personality psychology in at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It was particularly exciting to see this positive shift it was quite a robust effect, and we think if people's prejudice was dampened in this case, this could be applied to other target groups."
    Earlier research has shown that television can be a powerful socializing agent and change attitudes toward women, toward African Americans such as "The Cosby Show" did, and people who are gay, such as "Will & Grace" did, and even about death, as "Six Feet Under" did in both positive and negative ways.
    Zarqa Nawaz, who created the show, was thrilled to hear that it truly did have an impact even if her intention in creating the show was to address a different prejudice. Before working on the sitcom, Nawaz produced a documentary, "Me & the Mosque," that looked at how women are drawn to Islam because of its emphasis on spiritual equality between the sexes only to find that there is sexism in the mosque. Nawaz wanted to expand upon that theme.
    "I wanted to create the sitcom because I was still mad at some Muslims for being so sexist," Nawaz said. "This is fantastic though, that I have inadvertently made my community look good. People ask me all the time, 'Do you think your show makes a difference?' And I have told them 'I have no idea.' Now I know. This is fantastic."
    The show struck a cord with Canadian audiences and did well in the ratings. It's been shown in 100 territories around the world, according to the show's producer Mary Darling. It runs on Hulu in the United States.
    "So many people don't know any Muslims, and here they are introduced to their community by their TV set. It is one of the reasons I wanted to make the show," Darling said. "Seeing a group you don't know as totally mainstream can be powerful. We're thrilled at these results."
    Murrar said next she and her fellow researchers would like to see exactly what is the key ingredient that changed attitudes. Nawaz has a theory.
    "People have said to me that the characters are universal and can be found in a church, synagogue or temple. Maybe it is because people can relate to seeing these characters that helps," Nawaz said. When you see people in the show fighting over who runs the bake sale, it is likely a familiar fight in many cultures, she said.
    Perhaps if Murrar and her group can find the trigger that shifts prejudice, Murrar said, shows such as "Little Mosque" could be used in diversity training and have other real world applications too. There is potential to, as Murrar said, "produce much more lasting positive social change."
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