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Intergroup contact hypothesis

Dr. Simon Moss

Overview

Many researchers are interested in programs and initiatives that can curb prejudice and increase receptivity to diversity. The contact hypothesis concerns the proposition that, at least in some contexts, mere exposure or interactions with other ethnicities or groups can reduce prejudice (see Allport, 1979& Amir & Katz, 1976).

Allport (1954) maintained that contacts characterized by equality in status, common goals, cooperation, and support from institutions were especially effective. However, as Husnu and Crisp (2010) highlighted, even if these conditions are not fulfilled, intergroup contact is often effective.

The issue, however, is complex. For example, observing, but not interacting, with other ethnic groups has been sometimes shown to exacerbate, not curb, prejudice and discrimination. Nevertheless, prejudice can subside in individuals whose friends interact with other minorities. Even merely imagining these interactions with other ethnicities has been shown to curb negative attitudes.

Interest in the culture of other communities

Besides curbing prejudice, intergroup contact and social connectedness to another group has been shown to promote interest in other communities. Indeed, this interest seems, at least partly, to mediate the relationship between intergroup contact and reduced prejudice (Brannon & Walton, 2013).

For example, in one study, Canadian participants discussed opinions with a Chinese person, who was actually a confederate. The confederate mimicked the posture, arm position, and leg position of some but not all participants, intended to foster a sense of social connection. Next, participants indicated the extent to which they are interested in learning more about various cultures. Finally, participants were granted opportunities to purchase lottery tickets to win various Chinese cultural products. As predicted, social connectedness to a Chinese person increased perceived interest in this culture, as gauged by both the self-report measure and purchase of lottery tickets.

Subsequent studies showed the same pattern of results was observed in other cultures and with other manipulations. For example, these results were observed when social connectedness was increased by a confederate who referred to idiosyncratic interests in common with the participants, such as their favorite book. Furthermore, these effects seemed to last at least 6 months. In addition, this interest in the other culture diminished prejudice, as gauged by an implicit association test. However, when individuals felt their interest in the culture was imposed--because the experimenter demanded the participants learn about a group--this decrease in prejudice vanished.

Presumably, when people feel connected to another community, they naturally assimilate the goals, motivations, and customs of this group with their own identity or concept of themselves. Consequently, they attach some importance or weight to these goals, motivations, and customs& they become interested in these norms. This interest in another culture is inconsistent with prejudice. Because individuals like to maintain a sense of consistency, this interest then diminished prejudice.

Factors that moderate the benefits of contact

Numerous studies have shown that various forms of contact with individuals from other groups--other ethnicities, religions, ages, genders, occupations, and so forth--can reduce prejudice towards members of these collectives. Recent research, however, has begun to factors that might moderate the benefits of contact.

Context of contact

Some studies, for example, have shown the context in which these interactions proceed can affect whether or not contact will curb predudice. Hamberger and Hewstone (1997), for example, showed that contact with other ethnicities within the workgroup context does not curb prejudice. That is, individuals may believe that such relationships do not reflect any genuine bond or similarity. Indeed, ethnic minorities at work may sometimes be regarded as rivals for scare resources and jobs. Prejudices can sometimes intensify rather than diminish.

Quality of contact

The quality of contact also can affect prejudice (Pettigrew, 1997, 1998). Indeed, some studies show that incidental but regular exposure to minorities can amplify these prejudicial attitudes (e.g., Smith, Miller, Maitner, Crump, Garcia-Marques, & Mackie, 2006).

For example, sometimes employees might observe colleagues with other qualifications or ethnicities in the workplace but not interact with these individuals. Accordingly, these colleagues begin to feel more familiar. Familiarity without interaction, however, increases the likelihood that employees will rely on stereotypes to evaluate other colleagues. That is, when individuals feel that a colleague feels familiar, they do not evaluate this person carefully and methodically. Instead, to conserve effort, they apply stereotypes (e.g., Smith, Miller, Maitner, Crump, Garcia-Marques, & Mackie, 2006).

For example, consider an employee who observes a person with shabby clothes at a corporate function. This other person will thus seem familiar to the employee. Hence, they will apply stereotypes of individuals who wear shabby clothes to evaluation this person.

To substantiate this proposition, in one study, conducted by Smith, Miller, Maitner, Crump, Garcia-Marques, and Mackie (2006), participants received limited information about a person--an accountant-- and were instructed to characterize the personality of this individual. Some of the participants had been exposed to photographs of this person before. These participants were especially likely to apply the stereotypes of accountants when characterizing the person.

Salience of group membership

Brown and Hewstone (2005& Hewstone & Brown, 1986) argue that group membership must be salience to ensure that contact curbs prejudice and unfavorable attitudes to outgroups. If group membership is not salient, any exposure to some minority might not generalize to other members of that constituency.

Determinants of intergroup contact

Beliefs about the malleability of groups

Some people believe the behavior of groups, such as ethnicities, can change across time and is greatly influenced by the sociopolitical environment. Other people believe the behavior of groups tends to remain fixed or stable over time and is not influenced by the sociopolitical environment. In general, as Halperin, Crisp, Husnu, Trzesniewski, Dweck, and Gross (2012) showed, if people assume that groups can change over time, they are more willing to interact with diverse communities.

For example, in one study, participants read an article about the conflict between Turkey and Greece. Some people were informed the level of violence and other undesirable behaviors have changed dramatically over time and depend on the political contexts in which the individuals lived. Other people were informed the level of violence and other undesirable behaviors have remained fixed over time and do not depend on the political contexts in which the individuals lived. Next, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they would experience negative emotions, such as anxiety or suspicion, if they needed to interact with someone from one of the other ethnic communities. Finally, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they were willing to interact with a person from the other ethnicity to discuss opportunities to resolve the conflict. As predicted, if participants were informed that groups could change, intergroup anxiety dissipated and willingness to discuss the conflict with the other ethnicity increased.

Learning orientation

Sometimes, individuals are primarily motivated to develop and extend their knowledge, skills, and capabilities, called a learning orientation. On other occasions, individuals are primarily motivated to outperform other people, achieve their targets or, at least, avoid failures, called a performance orientation. As Migacheva and Tropp (2013) showed, when people adopt a learning orientation, they are more inclined to enjoy and embrace intergroup contact. They perceive these interactions as an opportunity to learn and develop rather than a source of failure, stress, or problems.

In one study, the participants were African or European Americans and completed surveys. First, they were asked whether they experience a learning orientation (e.g., "When you meet people who have a different skin color than you, how much do you think about what you can learn from them?") or performance orientation (e.g., "When you meet people who have a different skin color than you, how much do you wonder how you should act around them?") when they interact with people from another race. Next, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they felt comfortable while interacting with people from another race and are interested in becoming friends with someone from another race. A learning orientation was positively associated, and a performance orientation was negatively associated, with both comfort and interest in interracial interactions. A subsequent longitudinal study showed that a learning orientation increases enjoyment of intergroup interactions over time.

Extensions to the contact hypothesis

Vicarious or extended contact

Some scholars posit that individuals do not themselves need to be exposed to individuals from other minorities or demographics. Instead, if their friends often interact with other minorities or demographics, their prejudices will also diminish (Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997).

Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, and Ropp (1997) indeed accumulated evidence to support this proposition. In one of their studies, some participants engaged in a cooperative game with someone from another group. When these participants then return to discuss this experience with their own group, the prejudices of all individuals diminished.

Other authors have also substantiated this extended contact hypothesis. This observation has been observed in both children (see Cameron, Rutland, Brown, & Douch, 2006) and adults (Paolini, Hewstone, Cairns, & Voci, 2004& Turner, Hewstone, & Voci, 2007& Turner, Hewstone, Voci, and Vonofakou, 2008).

Imagined contact

Even when individuals imagine contact with another group, their prejudices subside (Crisp & Turner, 2009& Turner, Crisp, & Lambert, 2007). To illustrate, in a study conducted by Turner and Crisp (2010), participants were instructed to imagine conversing with an elderly person. Later, they completed an implicit association test to ascertain whether they feel positively or negatively towards elderly people. Imagined conversations with elderly individuals were sufficient to foster positive attitudes towards this constituency. Similar findings were observed in the second study, except Muslim individuals, rather than elderly people, represented the target of interest.

Turner and Crisp (2010) discussed the mechanisms that could underpin the benefits of these imagined interactions. Specifically, mental imagery can elicit the same emotional and motivational responses, but often to a lesser extent, as actual events (e.g., Dadds, Bovbjerg, Redd, & Cutmore, 1997). Indeed, the neurological mechanisms that underpin the responses to imagined and actual events overlap considerably (Kosslyn, Ganis, & Thompson, 2001).

As Husnu and Crisp (2010) showed, if individuals elaborate these images, this imagined contact effect is amplified. For example, in one study, 60 British students, none of whom were Muslim, were asked to specify the number of British Muslim people they know. Next, some participants were asked to imagine a conversation with a Muslim stranger. They were asked to imagine discovering some interesting facts about this person. In addition, some of these participants were also encouraged to elaborate these images, by envisioning the precise time and place they might interact with this person. Furthermore, participants completed some questions that assess whether the images were vivid, whether they perceive Muslims favorably or unfavorably, and whether they expect to enjoy interacting with Muslims in the future. Finally, the extent to which they intend to interact with British Muslims in the future was assessed.

If the images were elaborated, participants were more likely to intend interacting with British Muslims in the future. This association was partly mediated by the extent to which the image was vivid as well as whether participants evaluated Muslims favorably or unfavorably (Husnu & Crisp, 2010).

In a subsequent study, one day later, participants were also asked to attempt to retrieve the image they had formulated. The extent to which this image was easy to recall was also assessed. This study showed the relationship between elaborated images and intentions to interact with British Muslims in the future was, at least partly, mediated by the capacity to retrieve these images. Presumably, images that are elaborated can be retrieved more fluently, and this fluency positively biases their evaluations of these plans (see fluency and hedonic marking).

Positive experiences rather than neutral images

West, Holmes, and Hewstone (2011) uncovered an important complication of imagined intergroup contact. Specifically, if individuals imagine intergroup contact with a threatening or challenging group, such as patients with schizophrenia, prejudices are sometimes heightened. These images may actually amplify pre-existing negative associations. However, if individuals deliberately integrate positive features into these images, prejudice diminishes.

For example, in one study, some participants were asked to imagine an interaction with a person diagnosed with schizophrenia for five minutes. In the control group, participants merely reflected upon people with schizophrenia in general rather than a specific interaction. Next, they were asked to indicate the level of anxiety they predict they would feel if they interacted with a person diagnosed with schizophrenia. Finally, the extent to which the participants had formed positive attitudes towards schizophrenia was assessed. That is, these individuals were asked to indicate the degree to which they perceive anyone with this disorder as pleasant, friendly, negative, difficult, natural, or superficial, for example.

Interestingly, if participants had imagined an interaction with a person diagnosed with schizophrenia, they were likely to feel they would be anxious during these interactions. Their attitudes towards schizophrenia remained unchanged. As a subsequent study showed, this effect persisted even after participants had received positive information about people with schizophrenia, such as vignettes about famous but likeable people with this disorder.

Nevertheless, a third study showed that positive images of future contact did evoke some positive responses. In this study, some participants imagined an interaction with a specific, pleasant, and successful person who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Other people imagined a similar interaction with a person who had not been diagnosed with schizophrenia. After individuals imagined a positive interaction with a person who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, their attitudes towards this disorder became more favorable. They also did not predict they will feel anxious if they interact with people diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Images of fear and then positive experiences

Birtel and Crisp (2012) argued that prejudice does not always subside after people imagine a positive experience with another ethnicity, unless a vital amendment is included: these individuals should first imagine a fearful encounter. Specifically, consistent with bio-informational theory, individuals often associate other ethnicities with fear, and this fear is associated with a network of responses such as avoidance. To override this avoidance, two conditions are necessary. First, these schemas or networks of fear need to be activated. Second, once activated, positive experiences need to be primed. Consequently, these networks of fear become associated with positive experiences instead. This premise is aligned to the concepts of exposure therapy or systematic densensitization.

Birtel and Crisp (2012) conducted several studies that confirm this possibility. In their first study, some participants were asked to imagine two positive interactions with a person diagnosed with schizophrenia. Other participants imagined one negative interaction and then one positive interaction. Next, all participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they would experience various emotions while interacting with someone diagnosed with schizophrenia. Relative to the people who imagined two positive interactions, people who imagined one negative interaction and then one positive interaction tended to report less anxiety.

A subsequent study showed the same pattern of observations is extended to other stigmatized groups, such as people who belong to another religion. Furthermore, rather than diminish anxiety, a negative and then positive image also increased the willingness of people to interact with these stigmatized individuals.

Transfer to other groups

Tausch, Hewstone, Kenworthy, Psaltis, Schmid, Popan, Cairns, and Hughes (2010) showed that contact with one group can, in some circumstances, curb prejudice to other groups as well. In particular, after contact with one group, individuals form positive attitudes with this collective. These positive attitudes then bias the formation of attitudes towards other groups as well, called attitude generalization.

Tausch, Hewstone, Kenworthy, Psaltis, Schmid, Popan, Cairns, and Hughes (2010) conducted a series of studies to verify these arguments. One study showed that Cypriot Greeks who had often, rather than never, interacted with Cypriot Turks not only formed more positive attitudes towards these Cypriot Turks but also formed more positive attitudes towards residents of Turkey. Cypriot Turks also showed the same pattern of observations in their attitudes towards Cypriot and mainland Greeks.

The second study resolved some of the limitations of the first study. This study showed that Irish Protestants who often, rather than never, interacted with Irish Catholics not only formed more positive attitudes towards this constituency but also formed more positive attitudes towards distinct minorities, such as individuals who are Asian or African (Tausch, Hewstone, Kenworthy, Psaltis, Schmid, Popan, Cairns, & Hughes, 2010). To measure contact, the extent to which participants had chatted to people from the other community and visited these people in their homes was assessed. To measure attitudes, participants were asked to specify the extent to which they felt cold or warm towards members of these communities, on a scale from 0 to 100 degrees.

Several limitations were resolved as well. In this study, contact with individuals who are Asian or African was measured and controlled statistically. A third study confirmed these findings, even after controlling social desirability biases (Tausch, Hewstone, Kenworthy, Psaltis, Schmid, Popan, Cairns, & Hughes, 2010).

Mechanisms that underpin the benefits of contact

Studies have also been conducted to understand the mechanisms that underpin the benefits of contact. Turner, Hewstone, Voci, and Vonofakou (2008), for example, uncovered four mechanisms that underpin the benefits of extended or vicarious contact.

Intergroup anxiety

First, Turner, Hewstone, Voci, and Vonofakou (2008) found the relationship between extended contact--that is, the perception that friends interact with a minority--and attitude to that minority was partly mediated by intergroup anxiety. In their study, the participants were White British students. Intergroup anxiety was measured with questions like "Please think of how...(awkward or self conscious)...how you would feel (if you) mixed socially with complete strangers who are Asians".

Intergroup anxiety was lower in individuals whose friends know Asian individuals. As a consequence, during future exchanges with anyone from these ethnicities, these individuals are more relaxed and thus more inclined to focus their attention on favourable facets of the interaction (cf. Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997).

Positive ingroup norms

Second, Turner, Hewstone, Voci, and Vonofakou (2008) found the relationship between extended contact with a minority and attitude to that minority was partly mediated by perceived ingroup norms. That is, if the friends of participants interact with some constituency, these participants assume that such behaviour is typical, which governs their own attitudes. Specifically, in this study, White, British individuals whose friends spoke to Asians were more likely to "think (their) White friends are (friendly) to Asian people".

Positive outgroup norms

Third, Turner, Hewstone, Voci, and Vonofakou (2008) found the relationship between extended contact with a minority and attitude to that minority was partly mediated by perceived outgroup norms. In particular, if the friends of participants interact with some constituency, these participants assume these ethnicities must also be willing to interact with their ethnicity or race. That is, they endorsed items such as "...Asian people like White people (a lot)"

Inclusion of outgroup in the self

Finally, Turner, Hewstone, Voci, and Vonofakou (2008) found the relationship between extended contact with a minority and attitude to that minority was partly mediated by the degree to which the outgroup is assumed to overlap with the self. If the friends of participants interact with some constituency, these participants perceive this ethnicity as connected, not segregated, from their conceptualization of themselves.

Extended versus direct friendships

Some of these mechanisms--intergroup anxiety, positive ingroup norms, and positive outgroup norms--may not mediate the relationship between direct contact with some minority and attitudes towards that minority. Further evidence is warranted to establish whether the same mediators apply to direct, rather than vicarious, contact.

Some evidence has been collected. Islam and Hewstone (1993), for example, showed that intergroup anxiety mediated the relationship between direct contact and attitudes to outgroups.

Antecedents to intergroup contact

Egalitarian norms

Usually, individuals feel motivated to avoid people from other constituencies, such as unfamiliar ethnic groups. Intergroup contact is thus deficient. This avoidance, however, dissipates if individuals are exposed to egalitarian norms: the belief that everyone is equal and deserves to be treated equitably. Hence, exposure to the belief that everyone is equal may increase intergroup contact.

This possibility was examined by Wyer (2010). First, some participants were exposed to the norm of egalitarianism. That is, they were asked to write an essay about how all people are equal and should be treated equitably. The other participants wrote a control essay, about the importance of education.

Next, the participants completed a lexical decision task, intended to ascertain whether they are more inclined to approach or avoid homosexual people. Specifically, they were exposed to a series of words or contrived items. Their task was to decide whether or not the item was a legitimate word. Some of the words related to approach, such as contact, near, help, assist, and support. Other words related to avoidance, such as flee, escape, shun, reject, and refuse. Before each item appeared, the prime gay or ggg was presented rapidly and then masked, too rapidly to be recognized consciously. Furthermore, prejudice towards homosexuals was assessed explicitly.

As hypothesized, if participants conceded they were prejudiced towards homosexuals, they recognized approach words more rapidly-and avoidance words less rapidly--after the prime gay instead of ggg. However, if individuals were exposed to the egalitarian prime, this effect of prejudice on avoidance dissipated. These norms, therefore, virtually nullified the usual avoidance of other communities, particularly in prejudiced individuals (Wyer, 2010).

A subsequent study was the same, except the other community was African Caribbeans. Again, when the egalitarian prime was introduced, this effect of prejudice on avoidance, as well as approach, tended to dissipate.

These findings coincide with the theory that exposure to communities, or relevant cues, evokes the behaviors that individuals tend to enact while interacting with members of these collectives (see Cesario, Plaks, & Higgins, 2006). Hence, if individuals feel they should approach everyone--regardless of ethnicity, creed, or sexual orientation--cues that relate to any community should evoke approach behavior.

Other possible mechanisms

Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, and Ropp (1997) argued that extended contact might also enhance knowledge about the other constituency, which could further curb prejudice. Nevertheless, this proposition has not been substantiated empirically. Tam, Hewstone, Harwood, Voci, and Kenworthy (2006) showed that empathy also mediated the relationship between direct contact and attitudes to outgroups.

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Last Update: 6/13/2016