Intergroup Contact Theory: Past, Present, and Future

How does it work?

Multiple mechanisms have been proposed to explain just how contact reduces prejudice. In particular, “four processes of change” have been proposed: learning about the out-group, changing behavior, generating affective ties, and in-group reappraisal (Pettigrew, 1998). Contact can, and does, work through both cognitive (i.e. learning about the out-group, or reappraising how one thinks about one’s own in-group), behavioural (changing one’s behavior to open oneself to potential positive contact experiences), and affective (generating affective ties and friendships, and reducing negative emotions) means. A particularly important mediating mechanism (i.e. the mechanisms or processes by which contact achieves its effect) is that of emotions, or affect, with evidence suggesting that contact works to reduce prejudice by diminishing negative affect (anxiety / threat) and inducing positive affect such as empathy (Tausch and Hewstone, 2010). In another meta-analysis, Pettigrew and Tropp (2008) supported this by looking specifically at mediating mechanisms in contact and found that contact situations which promote positive affect and reduce negative affect are most likely to succeed in conflict reduction. Contact situations are likely to be effective at improving intergroup relations insofar as they induce positive affect, and ineffective insofar as they induce negative affect such as anxiety or threat. If we feel comfortable and not anxious, the contact situation will be much more successful.

Generalizing the effect

An important issue that I have not yet addressed, however, is how these positive experiences after contact can be extended and generalized to other members of the outgroup. While contact may reduce an individual’s prejudice towards (for example) their Muslim colleague, its practical use is strongly limited if it doesn’t also diminish prejudice towards other Muslims. Contact with each and every member of an outgroup – let alone of all out-groups to which prejudice is directed – is clearly unfeasible and so a crucial question in intergroup contact research is how the positive effect can be generalized.

A number of approaches have been developed to explain how the positive effect of contact, including making group saliency low so that people focus on individual characteristics and not group-level attributes (Brewer & Miller, 1984), making group saliency high so that the effect is best generalized to others (Johnston & Hewstone, 1992), and making an overarching common ingroup identity salient (Gaertner, Dovidio, Anastasio, Bachman, & Rust, 1993). Each of these approaches have both advantages and disadvantages, and in particular each individual approach may be most effective at different stages of an extended contact situation. To deal with this issue Pettigrew (1998) proposed a three stage model to take place over time to optimize successful contact and generalization. First is the decategorization stage (as in Brewer & Miller, 1984), where participants’ personal (and not group) identities should be emphasized to reduce anxiety and promote interpersonal liking. Secondly, the individuals’ social categories should be made salient to achieve generalization of positive affect to the outgroup as a whole (as in Johnston & Hewstone, 1992). Finally, there is the recategorization stage, where participants’ group identities are replaced with a more superordinate group: changing group identities from ‘Us vs. Them’ to a more inclusive ‘We’ (as in Gaertner et al., 1993). This stage model could provide an effective method of generalizing the positive effects of intergroup contact.

Theoretical Extensions

Even with such work on generalization, however, it may still be unrealistic to expect that group members will have sufficient opportunities to engage in positive contact with outgroup members: sometimes positive contact between group members is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. For example, at the height of the Northern Ireland conflict, positive contact between Protestants and Catholics was nigh on impossible. As such, recent work on the role of intergroup contact in reducing prejudice has moved away from the idea that contact must necessarily include direct (face-to-face) contact between group members and instead includes the notion that indirect contact (e.g. imagined contact, or knowledge of contact among others) may also have a beneficial effect.

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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