What's in this article?
- What is Intergroup Contact Theory?
- How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice?
- Can knowing someone who knows someone reduce prejudice too?
- Does intergroup contact work all the time?
- What can I do to reduce prejudice?
- Make Diverse Friends
- Tell Others About Your Diverse Friends
- Arrange Intergroup Meetups
- A Rwandan Love Story...
All their lives, they were told that the other family was evil and ruthless. No one is allowed to talk to the other.
One day, they locked eyes. At first, intrigued. When they spoke, a deep sense of connection sparked.
For the first time, they saw each other as loving human beings and not the evil monster their families made them out to be. The years of negative beliefs about each other's families vanished.
They fell in love. Romeo and Juliet.
Contact between different cultural groups is powerful. Intergroup contact creates positive interactions, reduces prejudice and builds empathy. The deepest rivalries between the Montagues and Capulets did not stop their children from changing their hearts and minds about each other.
You can find many similar stories of people holding strong negative beliefs about the other, only to have those beliefs shattered when they meet in person.
Why does this happen? How can meeting someone in person break down years of negative stereotypes and beliefs about the other?
What is Intergroup Contact Theory?
In the 50s, prominent psychologist, Gordan Allport, wrote a highly influential and highly cited book titled "The Nature of Prejudice". In his book, he outlined a hypothesis proposing that contact between members of different groups results in positive emotions and thus, reduces prejudice.
Prejudice (...) may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups on the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional support, and provided it is of a sort that leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between the members of the two groups”. (Allport, 1954, p. 281)
Allport outlined that four conditions are needed for successful intergroup contact. For these positive effects to occur, there must be a perception of equal status in the group contact, along with institutional support. Also, there should be cooperation among all groups to pursue a common goal. Yet, Allport's Intergroup Contact was a hypothesis because it was an assumption without research.
In the 90s, the hypothesis1 became a theory2 when social psychologist, Thomas Pettigrew, found evidence for positive emotions and the reduction of prejudice with intergroup contact. Later, Pettigrew and Linda Troop discovered that even if Allport's four conditions were not met, prejudice could still be reduced with meaningful intergroup contact.
How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice?
According to Pettigrew and Troop, three psychological processes occur when there is intergroup contact and involves anxiety, knowledge and empathy.
Firstly, the sense of anxiety decreases in intergroup contact. Because most intergroup contact and interaction are positive. A positive interaction is not threatening and helps create a safe space for a mutual exchange.
Also, when there is a positive interaction, it usually does not match the other person's negative stereotype or belief. When there is a mismatch, people question their long-held beliefs and begin to open their minds. With an open mind, people become curious. If my beliefs of the other are not true, what is true?
Next, people acquire knowledge in intergroup contact. People learn more about each other when they meet. This knowledge can include cultural differences and similarities and the other person's likes and dislikes.
Learning can be conscious and unconscious, helping to create a more detailed mental picture of the other. With more information, the shallow characteristics of group stereotype no longer hold true. Rather than basing group members on superficial descriptions or vague images, they are now seen as individuals with fears, hopes, dreams, and issues, just like everyone else.
This brings us to the third psychological process, empathy. With decreased anxiety and increased knowledge, our understanding and connection with the other deepen. Empathy is the ability to reflect and sense other people's feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. When you see others as human beings, you see can them as yourself and see yourself in them. This cultivates empathy.
The combination of these three psychological processes of decreasing anxiety, increasing knowledge, and building empathy are why intergroup contact can be such a powerful intervention to reduce prejudice.
Can knowing someone who knows someone reduce prejudice too?
In 1997, Wright and his team discovered that knowing someone who has friends from another group can also reduce prejudice. It is called the Extended Contact Effect.
The Extended Contact Effect suggests that when people know someone within their cultural group having a close relationship with someone from another cultural group, they will have a more positive attitude. In other words, when you know someone who knows someone from that other group, you will like them more.
With this knowledge, people will become more willing to engage and interact with people from other cultural groups. For example, in 2006, Cameron and her team changed children's attitudes towards refugees by presenting them with stories of positive intergroup contact with refugees.
Does intergroup contact work all the time?
Intergroup contact does not necessarily work all the time. Negative interactions or contact, such as stoking anger or raising anxiety, are more memorable and distinctive, even if it is less frequent.
When there is a negative encounter, people will more likely avoid such interactions again and increase or maintain their prejudiced attitude towards the other group members. Many more positive interactions are needed to overcome the handful of negative interactions.
What can I do to reduce prejudice?
Now that we've covered the what, why and how of intergroup contact, how can this be applied in life and work? Here are three suggestions.
Make Diverse Friends
All of us hold some form of prejudice, whether we are aware of it or not. The best place to start is building a diverse network of friends or connections. Find conferences, networking events, and meetups where you have the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds. Introduce yourself. Get into conversations. Even if you don't become friends, you learn more about other people through listening and observation.
In addition, making diverse connections allows others to be in contact with someone different from them. Subsequently, this contact helps them reduce anxiety, increase knowledge and build empathy toward people from your cultural group.
Tell Others About Your Diverse Friends
When you are among people from your cultural group, it helps to slip in a word or two about friends or people you know from different cultural backgrounds.
Talk about how you enjoyed the elaborate Indian wedding you had attended. Or share about how your Thai friends celebrate their New Year. Perhaps you can share how the British and Irish complain about their weather.
No matter the topic, sharing about your diverse friendships or connections increases the exposure of your cultural group members to different kinds of people and makes them seem less threatening.
Arrange Intergroup Meetups
If you can, arrange intergroup meetups. Find an opportunity to get people together in the same space and time. It could be a small picnic, dance party, a hobby meetup or even a movie marathon.
It need not be a complicated or extravagant affair. A simple, light-hearted event might turn a connection into friendship. Or perhaps a lifelong love? Let psychology do its magic, and over time, you might see less prejudice and hostility between different cultural groups.
A Rwandan Love Story
The story of Romeo and Juliet has been adapted to various forms across time and different cultures. In 2004, researchers sought to reconcile fragmented communities in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. They created a radio soap opera called "Musekeweya", or "New Dawn". The radio drama is based on the story of two villages in conflict, the Bumanzi and Muhumuro, not forgetting a love story between them.
Based on research by Staub and his team, the radio drama provided information about the origins, prevention and reconciliation of mass violence. After one year, researchers found that the radio drama promoted greater empathy in various groups and confidence in speaking up about their beliefs in public. It also increased greater awareness of the traumatic impact of violence and encouraged participation and engagement in reconciliation work among communities.
If intergroup contact can change attitudes and build positive connections between members of war-torn countries, it may help you in your quest to bridge the divide in your community too.
Give it a try!