Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Hollywood: one of the main reasons why racism still exists.

My flatmates and I have recently decided to hold a movie night every weekend, where we each get a turn to choose a movie to watch all together. After a few movie nights, I have come to the conclusion that I am no longer surprised at the level of racism that still exists at this moment in time. People have been so appalled by the xenophobic comments made by Donald Trump yet they seem to be so oblivious to the same messages portrayed through Hollywood movies.

One of the main targets of these movies has been the Russians. Since the Cold War, America has been using Hollywood movies as propaganda to create a negative attitude towards their enemy. In the first few years of the Cold War, seventy movies were produced that demonstrated explicit views of anti-communism (Shaw & Younglood, 2010).  However, the end of the USSR did not bring about any change, as similar movies are still being produced to this day.

Lets look at the classic film series, Rocky, known to have one of the best Russian villains. In the fourth sequel, Ivan Drago, a Russian boxer, kills Rocky’s best friend with ‘no remorse’ and then attempts to do the same with Rocky. We could also look at a more recent movie e.g. Limitless. I still cannot get my head around why they insisted that the role of the loan shark be played as a Russian, who would stop at nothing to get his money back, including suffocation by ‘cutting him at waist, peeling his skin over his head and tying a knot’.  All these movies produce the same message repeatedly: ‘Russians bad! Russians remorseless!’

However, it doesn’t stop there. Unsurprisingly, Russians are not the only enemies that America has. Hollywood has also produced a significant number of movies that shed a negative light onto the Arabs and Muslims. They range from the Ali Baba cartoons, back in the day, to the current, well-known Homeland series. Not only is the series filled with wrong facts about Islam and the Middle East, such as having to bury the Quran after someone has dropped it, but it also revolves around negative stereotypes and portrays the Middle East as a minefield of terrorists. The negative portrayal created such frustration among Middle Easterners, that, three men, who were hired to draw Arabic graffiti on the walls in order to add authenticity to the scenes, actually painted ‘ Homeland is racist’ and other similar messages on the walls of the scenes (Philips, 2015).

The political issues are obviously far more complex than I have discussed, however, the aim of this article is to explain how these subliminal messages are affecting our attitudes and why it comes as no surprise that racism is still a huge problem at this day and age. 

Availability heuristic is a cognitive ‘short-cut’ that humans use to make judgments. This heuristic allows us to make decisions based on information that is readily available rather than forcing us to consider every aspect of the situation. This term was first used by Tversky and Kahneman, who argued that as a result of this heuristic, people are more likely to overestimate probabilities of events that are easily retrieved by the mind (Tversky & Kahneman, 1975). In 1978, further support was provided by Lichtenstein et al., who investigated people's assessment of lethal events by providing them with a list of causes with varying levels of frequencies. As predicted, it was found that the more the participants were exposed to a cause, the more likely they were to overestimate it's probability. They found disasters to be highly overestimated while natural causes of death such as diabetes were underestimated. This could once again be linked to the kind of information that we are surrounded by; more people tend to discuss natural disasters, as they are far more interesting and shocking than natural causes. In their study, Lichtenstein et al., actually found a strong correlation between the judgement of frequencies and the coverage of these lethal events in the newspaper. 

However, not only do they affect our judgment in regards to probabilities, but they also have a significant impact on our attitude towards certain things. This was further illustrated by Schwarz et al. (1991), who asked participants to describe events in which they had been assertive. Half of the participants were asked to describe six events while the rest were asked to describe 12. After they had finished the task, they were then asked to rate themselves on how assertive they are overall. Those who were asked to only name six assertive moments rated themselves as far more assertive. This can be explained by the availability heuristic as those who were asked to describe 12 events found it much harder to think of moments of assertiveness. They based their judgment on the fact that they had struggled to come up with 12 instances and thus concluded that they must not be assertive.

Similarly, it can be argued that these stereotypes created by Hollywood movies are what we use when making quick judgments about people that we are uncertain of. Using our most available and biased information, provided by Hollywood, we make  racist judgments about people. One could argue that people should stop using stereotypes, however, stereotypes are something that we all use implicitly, with no conscious knowledge. Even those who try their best to keep an open mind tend to have unconscious negative stereotypes (Paul, 2016). There are times when people need to make very quick judgments and not having all the facts forces us to take the easier route and use stereotypes that we have formed subconsciously.

With this in mind, I believe that if Hollywood were to stop making movies in which the Arabs are the terrorists and the Russians are the mob killers, then maybe over time, people’s stereotypes can begin to alter. These prejudices, as stated above, are based on information that is easiest to retrieve and one of the reasons they exist is because Hollywood is repeatedly presenting them to us. Therefore, if these repeated messages were to change, then maybe people’s attitudes would change as well.


Lichtenstein, S., Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B., Layman, M., & Combs, B. (1978). Judged frequency of lethal events. Journal of experimental psychology: human learning and memory4(6), 551-578.

Paul, A. M. (2016, June 9). Where Bias Begins: The Truth About Stereotypes. Retrieved November 8, 2016, from Psychology Today:

Philips, C. (2015, October 15). 'Homeland is racist': artists sneak subversive graffiti on to TV show. Retrieved November 8, 2016, from The Guardian:

Shaw, T., & Younglood, D. J. (2010). Cinematic Cold War: The American and Soviet Struggle for Hearts and Minds. University Press of Kansas.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1975). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Utility, probability, and human decision making , 141-162.

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