25 Interviews for the FNP’s 25th Anniversary: Michał Bilewicz, PhD habil., a social psychologist, talks to Anna Mateja

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25 Interviews for the FNP’s 25th Anniversary. The Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we have invited 25 beneficiaries of our programmes to tell us about how they “practise” science. What fascinates them? What is so exciting, compelling and important in their particular field that they have decided to devote a major part of their lives to it? How does one achieve success?

The interviewees are researchers representing many very different fields, at different stages of their scientific careers, with diverse experience. But they have one thing in common: they practise science of the highest world standard, they have impressive achievements to their credit and different kinds of FNP support in their extensive CVs. We are launching the publication of our cycle; successive interviews will appear regularly on the FNP website.

Pleasant reading!

People Can Change

Assoc. Prof. Michał Bilewicz, a social psychologist, talks to Anna Mateja.

ANNA MATEJA: How creative is research on understanding social prejudice? I ask with some suspicion because I realize that it’s not easy to tell people things that are hard to accept. And the awareness that the results of one’s work could give rise to protests or accusations can hardly be uplifting.

MICHAŁ BILEWICZ: Research doesn’t place blame on anyone, and if it does, it’s on whole communities equally. The truth is, as psychology shows, that all of us behave the same in certain situations, e.g. become prejudiced, dehumanize others, shift responsibility for our failures onto them. So social psychologists do not search for people to blame but try to describe an actual state: How does this kind of behaviour arise? When do conflicts begin? Why do we let ourselves be convinced that ?Others? are less human and then a lynch or pogrom becomes possible?

Problems arise when we present the results of our research and the first words are: ?It is not we, Polish people, who behave like this. We don’t do people harm, we always help?. When I presented our research on anti-Semitism in Poland, research that did not blame anyone, at a gathering of the Parliamentary Committee for National and Ethnic Minorities a few years ago and heard that it was anti-Polish, I was amazed at such a response.


Yes, really, but I do try to understand it. In the early 1960s Stanley Milgram conducted a well-known experiment on obedience to authority figures, in which over 60 percent of the subjects were prepared to give a deadly electric shock to another person. Milgram later described it to a group of students and psychiatrists, asking them to guess how many subjects were prepared to kill under pressure from an authority figure. Both groups judged that at most 1-2 percent of the subjects went to the end of the scale. No one believed that two-thirds of the subjects had been prepared to do it!

Not long ago we conducted a similar experiment on quite a large sample of Polish internet users. We changed it slightly, because the teacher was meant to punish a participant for failure to perform a task with a loud sound (the final sound was to be strong enough to damage the eardrums). We presented the experiment to the subjects as having been carried out at a Polish university, or one in the United Kingdom or Germany.

What percentage of subjects was thought to have used up the whole scale?

According to Polish internet users, 65 percent of British people and Germans in the experiment would certainly have pressed the maximum sound. At the same time, they said that fewer than half the Polish subjects would have done it. According to the internet users, the orders of superiors, regardless of what such orders concern, are followed only by ?them? –  Germans and British people (as you can see, even experiences from history were of no consequence). Poles were thought to be more capable of independent thinking, as if we were excluded from the universal mechanisms of obedience.

In another experiment, we studied a phenomenon called the ultimate attribution error, which is an asymmetry in explaining the actions of in-group and out-group members. We wanted to understand how people explain very similar behaviours displayed by members of their own nation and of other nations, e.g. the killings in the Pawłokoma area, where the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army] murdered Poles in some villages while the AK [Polish Home Army] murdered Ukrainians in others. This was an ethnic cleansing on both sides, but when you ask subjects what induced those ancestors to murder their neighbours, external pressure or a desire to dominate in the area, you get different answers. If “we” were the killers, then those were the orders we had received, and besides we were provoked; if “we” were the ones who were murdered, then it was out of hatred and a desire for looting.

One thing I completely didn’t expect was that we even observed this pattern of thinking in Germany, when we told one group of subjects a story about a Wehrmacht soldier who had murdered some Jews and told another group that he had saved them. Each time, we asked about motivation. Most respondents believed the murder had been committed upon orders, even though nothing in the story suggested this. Those who read the story in the second version mostly believed that the soldier had saved the Jews because he had a kind heart. These distortions in explanations are especially prominent among people attached to their own nation as well as those who have a tendency to use cognitive shortcuts, who do not tolerate ambiguity.

These experiments confirmed my belief in the existence of every nation’s strong illusions about itself. These illusions inevitably distort the way we talk about history, and even how historians explain it.

Do you believe that knowledge about our motivation, obtained through scientific research, enables us to change something inside us? To abandon certain views and understand others? My impression is that in your field this is more difficult than in any other.

That’s not true! We do our best not to offer a dark diagnosis of humankind ? that this is the way people are and it’s hard to change. Just the opposite: since we know why people think with aversion about refugees, for example, and we understand the psychological reasons behind it, we also stand a chance of finding a way to overcome those prejudices, for example by establishing personal contacts with the outgroup. It’s a hypothesis tested many times: it’s enough if we know many Muslims, Jews or Ukrainians, then in a crisis we won’t look for a scapegoat among them. Knowing people personally, we won’t believe in the clichés according to which every Muslim is a terrorist, every Jew ? a banker, and every Ukrainian ? a criminal. Furthermore, I think that even if such views appear in Poland, they are situational in character, the effect of artificially aroused fears, sometimes also of the situation of the people expressing such views.

So even if it’s favourable for politicians to invoke nationalist views, it doesn’t mean these are actual true views that have finally been allowed to manifest themselves.

This is where I see the line of my dispute with, for example, cultural anthropologists and those humanities scholars who look for so-called long duration processes. These allow them to claim that in Poland, for example, there is a deep foundation of anti-Semitism that surfaces in connection with current events. There is no evidence backed by scientific research that would allow us to say it is true that someone is an anti-Semite or an Islamophobe by birth, so to speak. Neither are politicians absolutely necessary to trigger prejudice. Media wanting to increase their sales will do it just as well.


Not only them. Responsibility for the anti-Islamic panic, for example, also lies with serious media, including liberal and open-minded ones. Media studies scholar Prof. Jacek Wasilewski and I performed an experiment in which the subjects read short news articles about ?Muslim terrorists? who had conducted an attack. In some articles we added the information that a local Muslim leader had condemned the attack, saying that such operations went against Islam. Other articles lacked this information, which often happens in the media, though I think every actual attack has been condemned by many imams. In this study we noticed that the lack of information about the Muslim community’s response strongly increased the subjects’ Islamophobia. Therefore by concentrating on just one aspect of a situation, namely the religion of the perpetrators of an attack, the media can produce a distorted image of all Muslims.

In another study we analysed how people were affected by hateful comments targeted at national or social groups. Some of them read aggressive comments that didn’t contain hate speech against minorities. Others were given comments among which were many remarks offending Muslims, Jews or gays and lesbians.

I’m guessing that after a time you met up again with the experiment’s participants.

And we asked them whether they would agree to live in a street where most of the residents were Muslims, for example. A large group of those who had read online comments with hate speech answered “no”. Those who’d been given neutral texts were prepared to a much greater extent to accept gay, Jewish or Muslim people in their surroundings.

These studies say quite a lot about how our thinking works. Long-term reading of hateful comments, such as those posted online with impunity, fuels bad emotions in the readers, including those who are tolerant. Such reading changes our threshold of sensitivity to arrogance, aggression, hatred. I can imagine that first the thought appears in a reader’s mind that since “they” are being insulted in this way, there must be something wrong with them. With time, the reader of such content arrives at the conclusion that he or she doesn’t want “them” to be his or her neighbours or work colleagues.

I admit that exactly this kind of research, showing the situational determinants of the human psyche, prompted me to get involved in social psychology. I don?t share the view that certain attitudes lie within us. On the contrary, it is situations in which people find themselves that shape their behaviour.


Dr Michał Bilewicz by Paweł Kula

All kinds of information are within arm’s reach today, so people can confront opinions with reality by themselves. Does that change nothing?

I, too, would like to think of people as truth-seekers scanning the internet in search of knowledge. But that’s not the case. Audiences today behave almost the same as when the main source of information was television offering two channels and a single newspaper. What they in fact seek are views that support their own opinions. And strong emotional stimuli, usually negative ones. Meanwhile, language has an enormous impact on our views, which I was able to study for the first time thanks to a FOCUS grant awarded by the Foundation for Polish Science in 2009 [a subsidy intended to enable young researchers to undertake new, promising and important research as well as providing assistance at the initial stage of building their own research team ? ed.]. We decided to study the language used in Poland to talk about abortion. When you take legal instruments or press articles from the early 1990s, they almost exclusively speak of a human foetus, whereas a quarter of a century later it is the norm to use expressions like “unborn child” or “unborn life”. We wanted to check to what extent the language we hear around us affects the way people think about the conditions for the admissibility of abortion.

This change of rhetoric has to be significant.

It is, and it turned out to be especially important to people who didn’t have a clear position on the issue but had doubts. They didn?t consider abortion to be murder, but neither did they diminish its importance by calling it “a procedure”. It turns out that it’s enough to use the word “child” many times for such people to become more inclined to abandon their doubts in favour of a restrictive abortion law. Whether they ultimately change their opinion depends on other factors that shape people’s worldview, but language has considerable importance in this process.

We have conducted many studies on this, publishing the results in scientific journals. I also mentioned the results to a bishop and to activists of a pro-choice organization. All of them were interested, because these studies show the power of the instruments used by both sides. I hope that the more people talk about it, the more resistant audiences will become to manipulation through language.

When you listen to hate speech appearing, for example, in the statements of some politicians, are you only a researcher? Or are you perhaps irritated by people who, probably unintentionally, are awakening the demons?

It’s impossible to avoid emotions in this work, so there are situations sometimes when scientists intervene, for example by writing an open letter to the president and the prime minister, “Enough dividing and excluding, enough dividing of the Polish people”, which we published in December 2015. It’s worth noting that this letter protesting against the use of humiliating labels like “children of the communist regime” or “Poles of the inferior kind” was signed by social psychologists ranging from those employed at Catholic universities to scholars making no secret of their liberal and left-wing views. Every one of them, I imagine, realizes that hateful language is changing the social divisions present in Poland into something we call essentialism. It means that Poles on opposite sides of the political dispute are turning into two separate species ? we are out to find almost genetic traits in each other that would justify a division, for example into “liar elites” and “mohair berets”, two derogatory terms used by the Polish political right and left.

We also studied essentialism under our FNP grant, investigating reasons why people with right-wing views use nouns so often instead of adjectives, for example saying ?Jew? instead of ?Jewish person?, “a homosexual” instead of “homosexual”. The results confirmed our hypothesis. It’s related to a special kind of cognitive functioning, a desire to assign people to a specific category, enabling the world to seem more orderly.

Which is what right-wingers prefer?

Definitely, though there’s nothing bad about the phenomenon itself. It’s just a tendency in thinking that is worth investigating. However, I discovered what use such knowledge can be put to when I and my associate, Dr Aleksandra Cichocka from the University of Kent, published an article on this topic in a leading British scientific periodical. The idea that “right-wingers” prefer nouns because they are “cognitively impaired” became a hit in the tabloids. One newspaper even posted an online test to “see how right-wing you are” with questions like, “Do you prefer to say ‘Danish painter’ or ‘painter Dane’?”. We watched in amazement as the result of our study, which explained a small percentage of variability in people?s political views with a linguistic preference, was turned into a machine for evaluating people’s worldview.

Things are no better in the Polish press. Recently on a serious web portal I read a text about the empathy-diminishing effect of paracetamol. I thought it was so absurd that I decided to find the original research article on which it was based. The reality was completely different: a scientific study conducted by a psychologist from Ohio State University checked to see how empathy worked and tried to explain experimentally why people didn’t help others. The neurosciences know a mechanism in which the occurrence of a feeling of empathy, for example towards a suffering person, is controlled by the same areas of the brain that are activated when we feel pain. Thus, by giving the subjects a painkiller, the researchers did in fact limit their empathy skills. In this particular case it was paracetamol, but the very same effect would have appeared if the subjects had been given any other substance affecting the pain threshold. But the popular press needs clear messages, like “watch out for paracetamol!”. And satisfied readers will switch to aspirin convinced they?ll become more sensitive.

And you reached the conclusion that some journalists in Poland are lacking not just in empathy?

My first thought was that the political sections in some media were much better edited than the science sections, where it seems you can publish anything. At the same time, the research itself captivated me, because though simple, it concerned fundamental issues touching human nature and interpersonal relations. I thought, “What a pity I didn?t think of that myself!”. There’s envy involved, but that doesn’t harm science ? rather, it makes science still seem extraordinary to me. I also felt pride, because the article mentioned the name of my associate from the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of Psychology, Dr Agnieszka Pluta, who studied the neurophysiological sources of empathy.

Why did you become a social psychologist?

As a student of sociology at the University of Warsaw and a member of the team of Prof. Ireneusz Krzemiński, who conducted research on anti-Semitism, I reached the conclusion that the methods with which sociology studied this phenomenon were insufficient. Since the time of Emil Durkheim, sociology has studied social facts, or abstract notions such as society or nation, as if they really existed. These notions enable us to describe phenomena, but explaining or understanding them on such a large scale is problematic, I think. In psychology, single humans are still the key to understanding the world ? individuals in action. To me their experience is easier to capture, because I can conduct a detailed interview, experiment, or even a brain imaging study.

I already had my master’s degree in sociology and was preparing to write another thesis in psychology when my thesis supervisor, Prof. Mirosław Kofta, showed me that I didn’t need to have a master’s in this field in order to start PhD studies in psychology. This field fascinated me so much that I obtained my subsequent titles exclusively in psychology. I remain faithful to its research methods, though I try to include sociologists, media studies scholars, political scientists in my research.

What is the point of practising a science like social psychology? Is it learning about the world in our minds because otherwise we won?t be able to change the world we live in?

The overriding aim is to understand people ? their views, statements, behaviours, which are often irrational. Otherwise, economics would be enough to describe them.

A few years ago during lunch at the university cafeteria in Hamburg, looking through the menu for vegetarian dishes, together with my friend ? also a social psychologist ? we started wondering why people loved some animals and consumed others. What’s the psychological mechanism behind it? The question led us to conduct the first study in the history of social psychology in which we proved scientifically that vegetarians much more easily than people who eat meat see animals as having not only personality or intelligence, but also secondary emotions, e.g. nostalgia, longing, love. This applies to all animals ? both those that are almost family members and those bred for their meat. “Meat eaters” are able to notice secondary emotions in a dog, for example, but not a pig, even though both species are similar to each other, and close to humans, in the development of their central nervous system. This basic and not quite conscious belief that a pig or a cow is psychologically distant from humans enables people to get used to the brutality of industrial animal farming. If we noticed the suffering and feelings of all animals, it would be much harder to eat cutlets while being aware of the animals’ fate.

It needs pointing out that this research idea appeared from nowhere.

But it launched a separate research trend in social psychology, studying the relations between humans and animals, including the determinants of meat eating. We published the first paper on this topic in 2010; further teams of scientists appeared quite soon afterwards, e.g. in Australia and Britain, launching their own research projects after being inspired by our work and citing our findings. And this is an example proving that science has to be practised globally and published in English-language periodicals. Social sciences practised regionally, for the needs of a market or local institutions, focusing only on the needs of the local community, will never count for anything in the world. I say this because I defend thinking about science in terms of fundamental research, though I realize how unfashionable this is today when we keep hearing that science should have a purpose. Even if someone decreed that “science has to do good” so it’s the task of social psychology, for example, to develop rules allowing an open and tolerant society to be created, this wouldn’t get my support. It would be social engineering and not science, in which the core is conducting diligent research.

That sounds very earnest and kind of? easy.

But it isn’t. As an editor of a British scientific periodical I once received a text for review about research on the motivation of volunteers. The study was diligently conducted and the conclusion drawn from it was that the stronger the national identification, the greater the inclination to undertake voluntary, free work for the community. Continuing along this line of reasoning: if we want to expand volunteer work, we have to strengthen national identity. That’s all very fine, but the study was conducted in China in connection with the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Is it the role of scientists to show the authorities of a country that violates civil rights how to manipulate citizens more effectively and take advantage of their free labour?

A different kind of border situation was experienced by a cognitive psychologist from Turkey who spent over a month in jail for signing an open letter appealing to the government to stop military attacks on Kurdish positions. A situation in which a scholar, regardless of what they write about, is interrogated or arrested, is extremely dangerous. We don?t realize how effective this kind of threat is, because they’ll detain one scientist but many will think, “Maybe it’s better not to pursue this? After all, I want to be a researcher, not a fighter”. Despite their fears, psychologists get involved in politics ? so as not to allow forces that could hinder scientific research to seize power.

Almost opposite your office windows at the Centre for Research on Prejudice lies Umschlagplatz ? the former railway ramp from which the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto were transported to Treblinka. Is it important to you that the institution you lead is headquartered at this particular location?

I had a problem with this place? My grandfather came from a Warsaw Jewish family and his family went through Umschlagplatz, too. His parents and brother were killed, he and his sister survived. The building where the SS had its headquarters during World War II, with a prison in the basement, is visible in all photos of Umschlagplatz ? it’s the building behind the standing people who will soon be in a transport to Treblinka. But it’s a coincidence that the centre is here. It?s simply that in the 1960s the building was given to the University of Warsaw, which set up the Faculty of Psychology here.

I knew the history of the building in Stawki Street because as a teenager I read quite a lot about the history of Jews in Poland and carefully studied the history of Muranów ? the northern part of Warsaw where the Jewish district used to be before the war. I lived with my parents in the Za Żelazną Bramą housing estate in Krochmalna Street, which was built on the ruins of the Ghetto. I walked along my street with the text of In My Father’s Court, a story by its former resident Isaac Bashevis Singer, finding traces of the Jewish past of the place. It was the early 1990s and nobody had bothered yet to even record a preserved fragment of cobbled street or a piece of wall from a building that used to be the Ghetto boundary.

So, I knew a lot before I arrived within these walls as a student, yet even so the place seemed terrifying. But? I got used to it ? in accordance with cognitive dissonance theory, which says that people first undertake activity and only later seek justification for it, changing their original views.

What does it mean in your case?

We conduct research on prejudice next to Umschlagplatz because it’s where we were assigned our work space. It’s a coincidence that looking out the window, I am reminded every day what dramatic consequences can follow from stereotypes, prejudice or dehumanization.

Associate Professor MICHAŁ BILEWICZ, (born 1980 in Warsaw) works at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Warsaw and heads the university’s Centre for Research on Prejudice. A beneficiary of FNP programmes: START (2007, 2008) and FOCUS (2009).