Intergroup Contact Theory: Past, Present, and Future

Since Allport first formulated his contact hypothesis, much work has confirmed the importance of contact in reducing prejudice. Crucially, positive contact experiences have been shown to reduce self-reported prejudice (the most common way of assessing intergroup attitudes) towards Black neighbors, the elderly, gay men, and the disabled - to name just a few (Works, 1961; Caspi, 1984; Vonofako, Hewstone, & Voci, 2007; Yuker & Hurley, 1987). Most interestingly, though, in a wide-scale meta-analysis (i.e., a statistical analysis of a number of published studies), it has been found that while contact under Allport’s conditions is especially effective at reducing prejudice, even unstructured contact reduces prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). What this means is that Allport’s proposed conditions should be best be seen as of a facilitating, rather than an essential, nature. This is important as it serves to show the importance of the contact hypothesis: even in situations which are not marked by Allport’s optimal conditions, levels of contact and prejudice have a negative correlation with an effect size comparable to those of the inverse relationship between condom use and sexually transmitted HIV and the relationship between passive smoking and the incidence of lung cancer at work (Al-Ramiah & Hewstone, 2011). Contact between groups, even in sub-optimal conditions, is strongly associated with reduced prejudice.

Importantly, contact does not just influence explicit self-report measures of prejudice, but also reduces prejudice as measured in a number of different ways. Explicit measures (e.g. ‘How much do you like gay men?’) are limited in that there can be a self-report bias: people often answer in a way that shows them in a good light. As such, research has examined the effects of contact on implicit measures: measures that involve investigating core psychological constructs in ways that bypass people’s willingness and ability to report their feelings and beliefs. Implicit measures have been shown to be a good complement to traditional explicit measures - particularly when there may be a strong chance of a self-report bias. In computer reaction time tasks, contact has been shown to reduce implicit associations between the participant’s own in-group and the concept ‘good’, and between an outgroup (a group the participant is not a member of) and the concept ‘bad’ (Aberson and Haag, 2007). Furthermore, positive contact is associated with reduced physiological threat responses to outgroup members (Blascovich et al., 2001), and reduced differences in the way that faces are processed in the brain, implying that contact helps to increase perceptions of similarity (Walker et al., 2008). Contact, then, has a real and tangible effect on reducing prejudice – both at the explicit and implicit level. Indeed, the role of contact in reducing prejudice is now so well documented that it justifies being referred to as intergroup contact theory (Hewstone & Swart, 2011).

From the editors

Everett (2013) presents an excellent overview of the research on Intergroup Contact Theory and how psychologists have used it to understand prejudice and conflict. As the article notes, friendship between members of different groups is one form of contact that helps dissolve inter-group conflict. Friendships are beneficial because of “self-expansion,” which is a fundamental motivational process that drives people to grow and integrate new things into their lives (Aron, Norman, & Aron, 1998). When an individual learns something or experiences something for the first time, his/her mind literally grows. When friendships are very intimate, people include aspects of their friends in their own self-concept (Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991).

For example, if Scott (an American) becomes friends with Dan (a Russian), Scott might grow to appreciate Russian culture, because of their intimacy. Even the word “Russian” is now part of Scott’s own self-concept through this friendship, and Scott will have more positive feelings and attitudes toward Russians as a group. The same process happens for all kinds of other groups based race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

Importantly, self-expansion and intimacy through friendship do not work like magic; psychologists can’t wave a wand and make them appear. Nor does it happen through superficial small talk (e.g., “how about this crazy weather?”). Intimacy develops through deep communication: sustained, reciprocal, escalating conversations in which two friends come to know each other in a meaningful way. A Christian person might say, “I have a Jewish co-worker” (while talking about a casual acquaintance) or a Caucasian person might say, “I give money to an organization that helps starving people in Africa” or a straight person might say, “I support same-sex marriage equality because I know someone who is gay.” All of that is good, but it’s not as effective at reducing inter-group conflict as a true friendship with someone in those other groups; superficial contact has a small effect on racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia. A recent meta-analysis (Davies, Tropp, Aron, Pettigrew, & Wright, 2011) revealed that spending lots of time with cross-group friends and having lots of in-depth communication with those friends were the two strongest predictors of change in positive attitudes and prejudice reduction.

At In-Mind, we work in a transnational team and we think this is enriching. What about you? Have you found friendships, or even working relations, across social groups? Did this lead you to have more open or positive attitudes? Or, do you have other experiences?

Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 60(2), 241-253.

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., & Aron, E. N. (1998). The self-expansion model and motivation. Representative Research In Social Psychology, 22, 1-13.

Davies, K., Tropp, L. R., Aron, A., Pettigrew, T. F., & Wright, S. C. (2011). Cross-group friendships and intergroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review. Personality And Social Psychology Review, 15(4), 332-351.

Dylan Selterman
Associate Editor

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