Music can reduce anti-dark-skin prejudice, study finds

A cross-cultural musical education program can reduce anti-dark-skin prejudice among young adolescents, according to recently published psychology research.

Despite decades of progressive efforts, racism and other forms of prejudice remain a troubling reality in virtually all parts of the world. In particular, dark skinned peoples, women and non-heterosexuals continue to suffer from oppression at most levels of global society. The stubbornness of prejudicial thinking may be a result of the brain’s natural reliance on stereotypes.

Psychological processes tend to be streamlined in a multitude of ways. One of the most important sources of psychological efficiency can be described as the use of “templates” to store commonly related information. For example, we can identify a car without having to process every little detail about it because a few key features (like four wheels, doors and a windshield) are enough to tell the brain that the object matches the car template. When people are identified in this manner, the templates can be thought of as stereotypes.

The application of stereotypical psychological templates becomes a major problem when they include characteristics that are personally (and often inaccurately) judged to have a negative quality. An additional issue is that few people exhibit all off the features that would be included in the template but they may be expected to do so anyway, signaling the development of prejudicial thought patterns and often leading to impaired social behaviors. Researchers have examined a variety of approaches to reducing prejudice, and several studies have suggested that music can be a powerful tool, especially among elementary school-aged children.

A 2016 study by Félix Neto, Maria da Conceiçao Pinto and Etienne Mullet included 229 sixth-grade students (57% male, all light skinned) living near Lisbon, Portugal. Approximately half of the participants took part in a specially designed music education session that included songs from the predominantly black culture of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony in Africa. The remaining students completed their usual music education program, which included only Portuguese selections. Anti-dark-skin prejudice was measured using a pair of tests that were completed by the students before taking the program, immediately following, three months later and after two years.

The inclusion of music from Cape Verde led to an immediate and sustained decrease in prejudiced perceptions of dark-skinned peoples. Perhaps most impressively, the effect was found to be stable two full years after the program was completed. Musical preferences are known to be closely related to cultural influences, especially that of family and friends. It is possible that the reduction in prejudice seen in this experiment is a result of this association. Exposure to the music of another culture may foster a greater sense of meaningful connectedness with its members that either overrides or alters the stereotypes that generate prejudice.

The study was published in the journal Psychology of Music.