There is a long line of research showing that when we make contact with people who are socially different than us, we tend to feel less prejudice towards them. This is known as “the contact hypothesis,” and it has been proposed as a potential remedy for prejudice for decades.

Contact seems to work best for reducing prejudice when the people involved have equal power in a situation or the contact is generally positive, as on a sports team or in friendship situations. But what happens in conflict situations, when the conditions for interpersonal contact may not be ideal? For example, what if you are the victim of ongoing discrimination or you feel threatened in some way by a group of people you see as “the other”? Does the benevolent outcome of contact still hold or are we more apt to revert to prejudice?

A new study aimed to find out.

The impact of contact

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In the study, researchers analyzed the results of 34 studies polling nearly 64,000 people from 19 countries around the world to see how intergroup contact affected their viewpoints about “outgroups” under conflict situations, where discrimination or threat might be high. For example, people were asked to report on how they viewed other religious groups (like Muslims assessing Christians in Lebanon) or different ethnicities or racial groups (such as white South Africans assessing black South Africans).

The researchers also had data from the surveys that measured attitudes towards outgroup members, such as how positive people felt towards them and how much they could trust them versus how much prejudice they felt. The quality and quality of intergroup contact was also available, including how positive or negative the contact was, how frequent it was, and how closely people connected—e.g., if contact was incidental or people were cross-group friends.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that high levels of discrimination and feelings of threat were both associated with more negative views of outgroup members, which is not too surprising. But having contact with outgroup members still reduced prejudice just as much—if not more so—under those unfavorable conditions. These findings held no matter the study design, what country was studied, or whether advantaged or disadvantaged people were being surveyed.

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To the lead author of the paper, Jasper Van Assche of the University of Ghent in Belgium, this suggests that contact theory holds even under conflict situations.

“Contact theory survived another test,” he says. “That means the interventions based on contact have a lot of promise, even for people high in threat and discrimination.”

That doesn’t mean that more intimate, positive contact isn’t better at reducing prejudice than other kinds of contact. Certainly, having a cross-group friend will likely have more impact than simply running across people at the grocery store.

However, mundane encounters still make a difference, says Van Assche. “Even short and relatively neutral encounters can be beneficial.”

How contact works

Why is contact so potent? Van Assche says that it’s probably because just being around people from an outgroup affects how we think and feel about them. As we become accustomed to even the mere presence of people from other groups, that can reduce our anxiety, especially if the encounters are neutral or positive—and that can lead to warmer feelings. Also, contact can enhance our knowledge about other people’s customs and practices, so that they don’t seem so foreign or “other” to us.

The findings suggest that could be a good tool for fighting prejudice, particularly for those who may be resistant to letting go of stereotypes. While those prone to prejudice typically avoid and have fewer friends from other social groups, says Van Assche, accidental encounters can still reduce their prejudice—albeit, little by little, and with relatively lower effects, he adds.

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Van Assche hopes that his research can lead people to see the benefits of integrating the spaces in which they live and increasing opportunities for positive contact between groups. This could be done through top-down methods, such as the government requiring school integration, but also from the bottom up. For example, suggests Van Assche, communities could create low-cost, low-key events that bring people together, helping to reduce prejudice and promote tolerance in an impromptu way.

Still, for some communities there isn’t much opportunity for intergroup contact because of segregation. Though this study didn’t look at this issue, Van Assche says that even remote forms of contact can help reduce prejudice. That can include knowing an “ingroup” member who has frequent contact with outgroup members, imagining an encounter with an outgroup member, and so-called “parasocial contact” via media and TV shows.

Of course, his findings suggest policies that keep people separated—such as redlining or de facto segregation—are likely to help make prejudice thrive. Here in the United States, for example, the Supreme Court just struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions, something that will no doubt lead to less diversity on college campuses, less opportunity for cross-group friendship to form, and more ethnic and racial polarization, according to the American Psychological Association.

Van Assche hopes that people will take away from his work the folly of segregation or in implementing policies that reduce opportunities for diverse groups of people to interact. If we want to work toward a more inclusive, less prejudiced society, we should find ways to increase—not decrease—opportunities for intergroup contact.


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