Fifty years ago, Gordon Allport recast the study of prejudice and stereotypes with his influential “contact theory,” which held that contact between members of different groups could reduce prejudice. While psychologists have tested this theory and sought out the right conditions for friendships to form across group boundaries, the question of how intergroup contact actually works is more of a mystery. What is it about those friendships that helps break down prejudices?

As they report in a recent issue of the Personality Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers from Australia, the United Kingdom, and Italy considered this question in Northern Ireland, a profoundly segregated community with a 300-year history of violent conflict. They asked large groups of college-age students and randomly selected adults about their friendships across Catholic and Protestant lines. Not surprisingly, they found that people with friends in rival groups, and even those with friends who had friends in rival groups, showed less prejudice.

But they also found something else. Based on the participants’ own reports, the researchers determined that the key ingredient in reduced prejudice was reduced anxiety.

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Think about it this way: If you hold negative views of a group, when you come into contact with a member of that group, you are more likely to be nervous—whether it’s about saying the wrong thing, offending someone, or being treated badly yourself. The researchers found that when someone befriends a particular member of a rival group, that person becomes less anxious— and more comfortable about interacting with other members of this group in general.

The study suggests the possibility of a ripple effect: Seeing friends act comfortably around people from other groups could make someone less anxious and encourage him to initiate an intergroup friendship himself. One successful way to combat prejudice, it seems, is by serving as a model to others.

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