​Josh Kalla on ​Reducing Prejudice

Josh Kalla
April 7, 2016

Josh Kalla had always been interested in politics as a child. Spring of his freshman year at Yale, he took a class about the use of field experiments in political and social science and was hooked. “The thought of running a rigorous experiment in political science, and learning something true about the world was just so cool.” He went on to work as a research assistant for Professors Don Greene and Alan Gerber, which further sparked his interest about using field experiments to answer “big, fundamental questions about American democracy.”

Kalla’s current work with Assistant Professor David Broockman, of Stanford, is doing just that. Their research, published in Science today, shows that door-to-door canvassing reduces transphobia dramatically, and with lasting results.  Canvassers – both transgender people and non-transgender allies – had 10-15 minute conversations with voters and encouraged them to reflect on personal experiences and those with LGBT people. The result – with methodology akin to a clinical trial – showed that 1 in 10 voters changed their attitudes. This reduction in prejudice is comparable to the decrease in prejudice against gay and lesbian people that took place from 1998-2012.  

“A ten-minute conversation is super novel in the world of politics. And if some stranger knocks on your door on a Saturday morning and speaks with you about transgender prejudice – it’s something that sticks in your mind. It’s a unique experience.” Even so, Kalla was startled by the dramatic results: “Given how much anti-transgender prejudice there is you expect there to be a lot of stigma. The fact empathy reduced prejudice really did surprise me.”

Along with their findings, the team led by Professor Jas Sekhon, developed a new methodology – taking well known principles of different parts of experimental design –  to conduct large scale field experiments with a high degree of accuracy, at a fraction of the cost. In the process, their work uncovered irregularities in a previous Science article on the topic, which lead to a retraction. Broockman and Kalla began this work together when Broockman was a still graduate student in Political Science at UC Berkeley.  

Kalla hopes their methods can serve as a prototype. “It’s important to recognize that this is only one study and replication is incredibly important.  We really hope that other people can take the experimental methodology and use it widely. I would love to see more people working in this field and figuring what are other ways to reduce prejudice.” Another goal is to better understand what leads voters to change their minds –  regarding candidates, party identification, or social and political positions.  

One of the most enjoyable aspects for Kalla is the hands-on aspect of working with real political groups. “I learn so much about how political people view voters and how voters view themselves, more so than you can tell from just reading a survey or an article. As much my methods are all experimental, I learn so much talking to the real voters. Outside of the experiments I love doing the canvassing – seeing how all the pieces fit together.”  

Photo of Josh Kalla by Farrah Kazemi