The persuasive power of stigma?

The admirable goal of increasing diversity in organizations has led, inevitably, to an increase in interactions between members of majority groups and members of historically underrepresented or stigmatized groups. Problematically, interactions between members of such groups are fraught with opportunities for things to go awry: stigmatized individuals must worry that non-stigmatized individuals hold prejudiced attitudes which can lead to discriminatory behavior, while their non-stigmatized counterparts worry about appearing prejudiced.

Indeed, a large body of research has documented non-stigmatized individuals’ concerns about doing something “wrong” or behaving inappropriately in such interactions. While these concerns too often serve as an excuse to avoid interactions with stigmatized individuals, research demonstrates that once “stuck” in situations in which their discrimination would be obvious – such as when the only bystander in view of a Black person in need of help – Whites can be more likely to behave positively towards Blacks.

As a result, while members of majority groups are generally motivated to avoid interactions with members of stigmatized groups, desires to appear unbiased can lead members of majority groups to behave with excessive positivity and friendliness when such interactions do occur.

This study demonstrates that these impression management concerns can, ironically, afford stigmatized individuals persuasive “power” in face-to-face interactions.


We predicted that able-bodied individuals and White Americans would have a difficult time saying no to persuasive appeals offered by disabled individuals and Black Americans, due to their desire to make such interactions proceed smoothly. In two experiments, we show that members of stigmatized groups have a peculiar kind of persuasive “power” in face-to-face interactions with non-stigmatized individuals. In Experiment 1, wheelchair-bound confederates were more effective in publicly soliciting donations to a range of charities than confederates seated in a regular chair. In Experiment 2, Whites changed their private attitudes more following face-to-face appeals from Black than White confederates, an effect mediated by their increased efforts to appear agreeable by nodding and expressing agreement. This difference was eliminated when impression management concerns were minimized – when participants viewed the appeals on video.

Source: The persuasive ‘‘power’’ of stigma?

Dan Ariely is the best-selling author of The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home and Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.