Battling Backlash: New Research Examines How to Reduce Prejudice Within Organizations


Arlen Moller and Nikki Legate

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the issue of reducing prejudice within police forces took center stage in the United States and abroad.

As protesters marched through Chicago that summer, a group of researchers from Illinois Institute of Technology, along with colleagues at the University of Reading, Durham University, and the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, conducted a study in hopes of finding solutions to that issue. Working with Illinois Tech alum Maya Al-Khouja (PSYC ’16), Illinois Tech associate professors of psychology Nicole Legate and Arlen Moller recently published the results of the study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Findings from multi-wave surveys completed by more than 1,400 police officers and staff make the case for their theory that autonomy-supportive communication is crucial as a means to help reduce defiance and backlash within police forces as they work to reduce prejudice.

“This theory that Nikki, Maya, and I are working with as a framework for organizing our research is called self-determination theory,” says Moller. “One of the foundations of the theory is that human beings have evolved to have a psychological need for autonomy.”

“You’ve got lots of employers, including police departments around the country—around the world—that have programs in place to try to reduce prejudice, reduce bias,” Moller continues. “But there’s mixed evidence on their effectiveness, and there is even some evidence that sometimes it makes things worse. Even with good intentions, sometimes the way programs are implemented make people resentful, feeling that they’re being accused of something wrongly, or talked down to, or coerced into participating. Ironically, that can lead people to behave in the opposite direction of what was hoped for.”

Within the context of real-world police training across a range of concepts including diversity, equity, and inclusion in the U.K., the team asked a series of questions to gauge the impact of autonomy-supportive communication practices. The study found that police officers who felt their autonomy was more supported by supervisors ultimately reported less antagonism toward the diversity initiatives, suggesting that those hoping to drive change may want to consider using these techniques rather than coercion or pressure.

“When we detect that our autonomy is being threatened—that someone is trying to manipulate us, control, or coerce us—we often react in negative ways,” Moller says. “It affects our mental and physical health, but also, people will often fight against it, even when it’s self-destructive….When we get into this kind of defiance for the sake of defiance mode, typically everyone loses. In the case of working to reduce prejudice in police work, I think it’s clear that police have a lot to gain—by more effectively meeting their mission to provide equal protection and enforcement under the law, to improve public safety, but also personally in terms of ensuring that police work is widely respected in their communities.”

Moller believes that the evidence-based motivation strategies investigated in the study are designed to increase the likelihood of buy-in, not just with individual programs but more extensively throughout society. The goal is for people to create good training programs to forge meaningful, lasting change by encouraging buy-in for ongoing investment of resources and energy.

“I discussed with police officers and staff what a ‘good training’ might look like, and many unknowingly described aspects of an autonomy-supportive training,” Al-Khouja says. “Examples included connecting the training to their personal values, creating buy-in through providing a compelling rationale for the training, and establishing a safe, non-judgmental space for reflection and learning.”

While the issue certainly won’t be solved easily or quickly, the team hopes that this study can lead more people to use autonomy-supportive techniques that are less likely to draw counterproductive backlash and more likely to garner cooperation, both in policing and more broadly in sectors such as health care and higher education.

“Entrenched patterns of prejudice took decades, really centuries, to develop in our culture,” says Moller. “Changing those entrenched patterns is a major challenge, and I think motivating cooperation from people who are in professions where the cost of prejudice is especially high, that is potentially a faster path to progress than fighting with them. The goal is to get more police officers to embrace the mindset of, ‘OK, I want to participate in some significant cultural changes in the way police work is done in my community. Being a part of that change would be a win-win.’”

Photo: Associate professors of psychology Arlen Moller and Nicole Legate