Strategy for Equitable Change: Peer Modeling


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This is part of the Salud America! Achieving a Cohesive Culture for Health Equity in Latino and All Communities: A Research Review»

The Benefits of Peer Modeling

Liebkind and McAlister77 designed an intervention to determine whether moral engagement and tolerance of other groups could be improved through peer modeling based on the extended contact hypothesis, which supposes that positive intergroup attitudes can be promoted via the knowledge that an in-group member has a close relationship with an out-group member.

The in-group friendship partner becomes a positive peer model that demonstrates tolerance in interacting with the outgroup, while the outgroup friendship partner becomes a positive example that repudiates the negative beliefs or stereotypes about the outgroup.77

In the study, the authors used a “behavioral journalism” intervention as a way to strengthen the characteristics of both the in-group peer model and the out-group friend. The in-group peer model demonstrated a close friendship with this typical out-group member while also admitting to having a negative attitude toward the out-group prior to the friendship, an attitude that changed as a result of the friendship. The goal of this was to make the participants feel that the peer model may have once shared their beliefs, or, in other words, make the participants able to identify a closeness with the model. In addition, the intervention was designed to make a change to more tolerant intergroup attitudes feel attainable and desirable.77

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The Salud America! Salud Hero series features peer models who have made healthy system or policy changes in their community.

The study was conducted in Finland and included 1,480 ethnic Finns with a mean age of 14.1 years. The participants were from three pairs of schools that were matched based on ethnic density, from high (16-19% immigrant students) to low (3-4% immigrant students). The schools were randomly assigned to an experimental condition or a control condition. The intervention included two types of peer models: same-age peers, and older university students.

The same-age peers shared their own stories, in print, of changing attitudes toward outgroups, while the older students shared stories expressing support for increasing tolerance of foreigners. Group discussions designed to influence group perceptions of the social desirability of increased tolerance were also included in the intervention.77

Overall, the results of the study showed that learning from the experiences of peer models’ interactions with out-group members significantly positively influenced intergroup attitudes among students who had fewer opportunities to form intergroup friendships due to attending schools with less diverse student populations.77

Another Example of Peer Modeling in Schools

McAlister et al.70 employed a similar behavioral journalism intervention in U.S. schools; this intervention emphasized peer modeling via authentic stories of changed behavior that came from the audience itself.

The study participants were ninth grade students from two high schools in Houston: one was used as the program school, and one as the comparison school. In the program school there were 393 surveys returned at baseline and 363 at follow-up; students were 18.8-19.7% Mexican American, 25.8-23.3% other Latino, 37.0-36.3% African American, 9.9-10.3% white, and 8.9-10.6% Asian. At the comparison school, 617 surveys were returned, and students were 32.8% Mexican American, 33.8% other Latino, 15.4% African American, 13.2% white, and 5.7% Asian.63 Surveys were conducted in December 1996 and May 1997 in the program school, and in June 1997 in the comparison school. The surveys concerned tolerance of and prejudice toward five groups: whites, Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, blacks, Asians, and Jews.70

health equity in school classroom with Latino and diverse teacher and students kidsFrom December 1996 to May 1997, a five-month communication campaign was presented in the program school; this communication promoted peaceful, positive intergroup interactions and included four behavioral journalism newsletters distributed and read aloud by a multicultural team from the University of Texas School of Public Health. The newsletters contained four to eight student stories, at least two of which featured Latino students’ stories, about overcoming prejudice. The fourth newsletter included stories from students who rejected moral disengagement processes.70

There was a significant association between behavioral intentions for discrimination and hostility and attitudes toward segregation, intermarriage, lack of sympathy, moral disengagement and violence, and superiority (all P = 0.001 or less). There were significant differences for affiliation, intermarriage, value similarity, and perceived superiority between the follow-up group and both the baseline and comparison groups, without any significant ethnicity or experimental group interactions. Attitudes toward violence and hostility were lower in the follow-up group, and behavioral intentions were significantly lower compared to the baseline group but not to the comparison group. A significant reduction in verbal aggression was noted in the program school, with those reporting five or more experiences of verbal aggression decreasing from 16% at baseline to 7% at follow-up in the program school. There were no significant changes in instances of physical aggression, which had low rates at baseline.70

Peer Modeling Interventions to Reduce Prejudice

Beelmann and Heinemann78 conducted a meta-analysis of studies that evaluated either psychological or educational intervention programs designed to improve intergroup attitudes and relations to reduce prejudice. The meta-analysis included 81 research reports with 122 intervention-control group comparisons. The majority of these comparisons (61.5%) explored intergroup attitudes toward other ethnicities, and 54.1% of the interventions were based on direct or indirect intergroup contact; over half of the interventions used a combination of intergroup contact, socialization and knowledge acquisition, and/or empathy training.78

Results of the meta-analysis showed that, in general, the interventions resulted in about a 15% improvement in intergroup attitudes, though it should be noted that most of the studies only reported the short-term outcomes of the interventions, when the ultimate goal of these interventions is, of course, a lasting effect.

The results do show, however, that the promotion of positive intergroup attitudes and the prevention or correction of prejudice through training programs in children and adolescents is possible.

Direct intergroup contact and empathy training were found to be the most promising intervention components, and direct contact, unsurprisingly, was more beneficial than indirect or vicarious contact. The authors note that, while indirect contact is sometimes the only option, direct contact should be applied if at all possible.78

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References for this section »

63. Shafir E. Decisions in poverty contexts. Curr Opin Psychol. 2017;18:131-136. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.08.026

70. McAlister AL. Moral disengagement and tolerance for health care inequality in Texas. Mind Soc. 2010;9(1):25-29.

77. Liebkind K, Mcalister AL. Extended Contact through Peer Modelling to Promote Tolerance in Finland. Vol 29.; 1998. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-0992(199908/09)29:5/6<765::AID-EJSP958>3.0.CO;2-J

78. Beelmann A, Heinemann KS. Preventing prejudice and improving intergroup attitudes: A meta-analysis of child and adolescent training programs ☆ , ☆☆. 2014. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2013.11.002

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