New University of Wisconsin research demonstrates how positive and relatable media portrayals of Muslims and other minority groups can decrease prejudice and negative stereotypes against them.

Television shows, videos and other entertainment media can have powerful impacts on the viewers that watch and listen to them, Sohad Murrar, social psychology doctoral candidate at UW, said. Depending on how the cast of characters portrays majority and minority groups, those impacts can either be positive or negative.

“Little Mosque on the Prairie” is a Canadian sitcom set in the fictional town of Mercy. The show follows the friendly relationship between Muslims and Christians that live in the town, according to CBC’s website. 

Using the show’s relatable and positive attitudes toward Muslims, Murrar studied how the show’s positive portrayals of the Muslim community can produce similar audience responses compared to a control group that watched an all white cast of “Friends.”

The hope, Murrar said, was to demonstrate how entertainment media like “Little Mosque” can cause different groups to relate to one another and could shorten the distances majority and minority groups have between each other. If groups relate to one another, they recognize each other’s feelings as more similar to their own, Murrar said.

“We know from a psychological perspective one of the antecedents of prejudice is to create an ‘in group’ and an ‘out group,’ and then to create distance between your group and the out group,” Murrar said. 

After watching both “Friends” and “Little Mosque,” those that watched “Little Mosque” demonstrated more positive attitudes toward Muslims than those in the group that watched “Friends.” More importantly, the positive response toward Muslims lasted weeks after watching the show, Murrar said.

In a second study, participants watched a music video that portrayed Muslims in everyday life. The video received a similar positive response, Murrar said.

UW psychology professor Markus Brauer explained it’s more than just watching a show that features minority group characters. It’s about how people can relate to the characters’ struggles.

“It’s not just about seeing people interact [with each other] that makes us feel that they are relatable,” he said. “This is sort of their human aspect, and what makes people human are these minor worries or shortcomings that all of us have.”

The media plays an important role in shaping people’s perceptions of “out groups” — how the media portrays “out groups” could determine how people behave toward those groups, he said.

Currently, Murrar said other studies are expanding on the psychological processes that are activated through viewing entertainment media.

The studies also plan to examine how content that is portrayed within media can affect people’s prejudices, she said.

“We are looking at whether certain things are necessary to reduce prejudice, like whether friendships between majority and minority groups might reduce people’s prejudice or what degree a character needs to be counter-stereotypical to reduce prejudice,” she said.

What’s important to emphasize about these studies is that they can create an effect of reducing people’s prejudices of other groups, Murrar said. People are identifying more with minorities through these entertainment media outlets, showing it is an important mechanism that has lasting effects, she said.

Now researchers have to determine what specifically about these shows triggers those effects, Murrad said.