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August 15th, 2012 by Kulani Panapitiya Dias

Are you a Robot or an Animal?: Investigating Automatic Attitude Activation

One study, many answers

Today I interviewed and surveyed an ex-LTTE cadre, a military official, a professor, a housewife, and an esteemed businessman. This is why I love what I do.

They had the most amazing stories to tell. There are of course many things that I am barred from writing about here, for the purposes of participant confidentiality [and my own well-being]. But there are some things that I am allowed to share with the consent of my participants. Take for example the businessman I interviewed today. A respected Rotarian, he engages in a lot of community service around Sri Lanka and was recently part of a group that donated several artificial limbs to ex-LTTE cadres who’d lost their limbs during the war. I felt myself tearing up when he showed me the pictures of an ex-LTTE commander, a woman, who’d lost both her legs towards the end of the war, walking again with her newly acquired artificial limbs. She was crying as she pushed her wheelchair away from herself. She could walk again.

All this in a sixty minute long interview and questionnaire session investigating Moral Disengagement, Ingroup Glorification and Essentialism in post-war Sri Lanka for an undergraduate double Honors thesis project. This is why I love what I do.

This further goes to show how important this kind of work is in reconciliatory efforts. I am personally very interested in the theory of Automatic Attitude Activation (Fazio). Automaticity in attitudes and social cognition can be a tricky thing to study. If one is primed for certain stimuli, and if the self-concept is shown to automatically activate certain attitudes in the presence of relevant stimuli, then one could argue that change in attitude is impossible? [I put in this question mark because it is unbearable for me to even make that statement without questioning it outright!] While I do agree with the socio-intuitionist model of behavior in the literature that follows that people make judgments based on intuition, and then find justifications after, I firmly believe that changes in attitude are possible, that we can change our mental schema to accommodate and assimilate new knowledge in order to change our behavior and automatic attitude activation towards respective stimuli. And the key to this change in behavior is through exposure to the ‘other’ side. It’s like the professor I interviewed today said, it’s not about doing away with the differences that are part-and-parcel of another person of another culture, but about acknowledging and respecting those differences – and simple appreciation. Why are human beings so threatened by something that is different to them? Because that difference may be an edge, a trait that may threaten their own livelihood, their own existence? I believe so.

So this ex-LTTE commander, who had previously commanded soldiers to shoot in the direction of the enemy, us, them, they, we… She posed a threat to the ‘other.’ The boundaries that are created are social constraints that then instigate automatic attitude activation for respective stimuli in developing children, perhaps even in grown adults who undergo severe trauma [another interesting avenue to explore!] But the stereotype, the label, of her being “the other,” was broken down by this businessman, who is as different from her as can be, and still wanted to help, and alleviate her suffering – alleviate the suffering of someone who had, in essence, killed hundreds of his own “kind.” But such “beliefs” can be changed, and this is what is possible with education, with learning, with travel, with research. After all, if we were all beings driven by solely automated or unconscious wills, we’d either be robots or carnal animals. What makes us human is our ability to change. So why don’t we? Isn’t it worth finding out?


*Fazio, R.H. (2001). On the automatic activation of associated evaluations: An overview. Cognition and Emotion, 15(2), 115-141.


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