Contact hypothesis

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In criminology, psychology, and sociology, the contact hypothesis has been described as one of the best ways to improve relations among groups that are experiencing conflict.[1][2] Gordon W. Allport (1954) is often credited with the development of the contact hypothesis, also known as Intergroup Contact Theory. The premise of Allport's theory states that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.[3] If one has the opportunity to communicate with others, they are able to understand and appreciate different points of views involving their way of life. As a result of new appreciation and understanding, prejudice should diminish.[4] Issues of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are commonly occurring issues between rival groups. Allport's proposal was that properly managed contact between the groups should reduce these problems and lead to better interactions.

Contact fails to cure conflict when contact situations create anxiety for those who take part. Contact situations need to be long enough to allow this anxiety to decrease and for the members of the conflicting groups to feel comfortable with one another. Additionally if the members of the two groups use this contact situation to trade insults, argue with each other, resort to physical violence, and discriminate against each other, then contact should not be expected to reduce conflict between groups. To obtain beneficial effects, the situation must include positive contact. Some of the criteria are as follows:

  • Equal status. Both groups must engage equally in the relationship. Members of the group should have similar backgrounds, qualities, and characteristics. Differences in academic backgrounds, wealth, skill, or experiences should be minimized if these qualities will influence perceptions of prestige and rank in the group.[5]
  • Common goals. Both groups must work on a problem/task and share this as a common goal, sometimes called a superordinate goal, a goal that can only be attained if the members of two or more groups work together by pooling their efforts and resources.
  • Intergroup cooperation. Both groups must work together for their common goals without competition. Groups need to work together in the pursuit of common goals.[5]
  • Support of authorities, law or customs. Both groups must acknowledge some authority that supports the contact and interactions between the groups. The contact should encourage friendly, helpful, egalitarian attitudes and condemn ingroup-outgroup comparisons.
  • Personal interaction. The contact situation needs to involve informal, personal interaction with outgroup members. Members of the conflicting groups need to mingle with one another. Without this criterion they learn very little about each other and cross-group friendships do not occur.

The reduction of prejudice through intergroup contact is best explained as the reconceptualization of group categories. Gordon Allport (1954) claims that prejudice is a direct result of generalizations and oversimplifications made about an entire group of people based on incomplete or mistaken information. The basic rationale is that prejudice may be reduced as one learns more about a category of people.[3] Rothbart and John (1985) describe belief change through contact as "an example of the general cognitive process by which attributes of category members modify category attributes" (p. 82).[6] An individual's beliefs can be modified by that person coming into contact with a culturally distinct category member and subsequently modifying or elaborating the beliefs about the category as a whole.

The effects of contact[edit]

The effects of contact are present across a variety of situations and between various groups. One meta-analysis in particular of 515 separate studies of contact and conflict confirmed the utility of the contact method in reducing conflict. They found that face-to-face contact between group members reduced prejudice in 94% of these studies, and that the basic correlation between contact and conflict was -.21; the more contact the less prejudice between groups.[5] Furthermore when the researchers studied situations that included the criteria for positive contact such as equal status and personal interaction, the correlation between contact and conflict rose to -.29.


Most research on the contact hypothesis resulted from World War II. Due to a shortage of combat troops, General Dwight D. Eisenhower allowed Black soldiers assigned in Europe at that time the option to volunteer for combat duty. The Army was concerned with the troop morale involving White soldiers who would possibly share the battlefield or be integrated into platoons with the Black soldiers. The results of a survey at that time were very polarized. Sixty-two percent of segregated units involving White soldiers said they would dislike the idea of serving in semi-integrated units. White soldiers who were currently serving within semi-integrated units reported only 7% dissatisfaction. This supports the notion that intergroup contact, under the right conditions, can reduce prejudice.

Other studies have claimed that contact hypothesis is a very simple and optimistic and that contact would most likely gravitate toward hostility rather than friendship if two competitive parties were involved. If groups with a negative outlook were brought together, it would lead to increases of negative attitudes rather than positive.[7]

Indirect intergroup contact[edit]

One of the most important advances in research on intergroup contact is the growing evidence of a number of indirect intergroup contact strategies as means to improve relations between social groups.[8] Indirect intergroup contact includes (a) extended contact: learning that an ingroup member is friends with an outgroup member,[9] (b) vicarious contact: observing an ingroup member interact with an outgroup member,[10] (c) imagined contact: imagining oneself interacting with an outgroup member,[11] and (d) parasocial contact: interacting with an outgroup member through the media.[12]

Extended contact hypothesis[edit]

The 'extended contact hypothesis,' put forward by Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, and Ropp (1997),[9] holds that knowing that a member of one's own group has a close relationship with a member of an outgroup can lead to more positive attitudes towards that outgroup.

Imagined contact hypothesis[edit]

The 'imagined contact hypothesis' was put forward by Richard J. Crisp and Rhiannon Turner (2009) [11] and proposes that simply imagining a positive encounter with a member or members of an outgroup category can promote more positive intergroup attitudes.

Parasocial contact hypothesis[edit]

Schiappa, Gregg and Hewes proposed a communication analogue to Allport's (1954) contact hypothesis named the parasocial contact hypothesis. Two years after the release of Gordon Allport's, The Nature of Prejudice, Horton and Wohl (1956) pushed for studying what they referred to as "para-social" interaction: "One of the most striking characteristics of the new mass media including radio, television and the movies is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationships with the performer"(p 215).[13] The illusion of a face to face interaction via the mass media is under consideration for scholars due to its implication to change, shape and/or reinforce stereotypes and prejudices. The theory works under the assumption that people cognitively process mass mediated interactions in a matter similar to interpersonal interactions. Therefore, these individuals should benefit from these mediated intercultural interactions (Parasocial contact) in a similar fashion to face to face interactions. Research studies have concluded that parasocial contact is associated with lower levels of prejudice and changes in beliefs about the attributes of minority group categories.[12] A complementary approach to the parasocial contact hypothesis is provided by Ortiz & Harwood[14] who suggest that observing intergroup interaction in the media (e.g., watching a gay and straight character interact on TV) can be particularly powerful in influencing attitudes. Members of groups can model effective intergroup interaction by observing such interaction in the media.[10]

Negative contact[edit]

Paolini, Harwood, and Rubin (2010) proposed that negative intergroup contact may be a more powerful predictor of prejudice than positive contact because it makes out-group members' social group more salient during the encounter.[15] (the negative contact hypothesis) Recent evidence has confirmed this prediction,[16] and shown that although negative intergroup contact is more influential than positive intergroup contact, it is also less common than positive contact in real world intergroup encounters. [17] Recent research has also shown that people's past history of experiences with out-group members moderates the size of the valence asymmetry in contact: People who have had positive experiences with out-group members in the past show a smaller discrepancy between the effects of positive and negative contact. [18]

Contact via other media[edit]

In addition to work on the parasocial contact hypothesis, additional research has examined the effects of exposure to characters in children's literature,[19] for instance, using Wright et al.'s [9] extended contact idea. Other work has examined whether online interaction has similar effects as direct face-to-face interaction.[20] Some attempts have been made to provide integrated frameworks for examining intergroup contact across a wide variety of mediated contexts and discussing how the process might differ from direct face-to-face contact[21]

Contact hypothesis and homosexuality[edit]

The contact hypothesis has proven to be highly effective in alleviating prejudice directed toward homosexuals. Applying the contact hypothesis to heterosexuals and homosexuals, Herek (1987) found that college students who had pleasant interactions with a homosexual tend to generalize from that experience and accept homosexuals as a group.[22] Herek and Glunt's (1993) national study of interpersonal contact and heterosexuals' attitudes toward gay men found that increased contact "predicted attitudes toward gay men better than did any other demographic or social psychological variable" (p. 239); such variables included gender, race, age, education, geographic residence, marital status, number of children, religion and political ideology.[23] Herek and Capitanio (1996) found that contact experiences with two or three homosexuals are associated with more favorable attitudes than are contact experiences with only one individual.[24]

Contact hypothesis and anti-Muslim attitudes in Europe[edit]

Savelkoul et al. (2011) in their study from the Netherlands found people living in regions with high numbers of Muslims (i.e. those more exposed to unavoidable intergroup contacts) get used to and are more experienced with their integration and express lesser perceived threats. In addition, they also found that higher contacts with Muslim colleagues directly reduce anti-Muslim attitudes.[25] Similarly, Novotny and Polonsky (2011) in their survey among Czech and Slovak university students documented that personal contacts with Muslims and experience with visiting an Islamic country associate with more positive attitudes towards Muslims.[26] However Agirdag et al. (2012) report that Belgian teachers working in schools that enroll a larger share of Muslim students have more negative attitudes toward Muslim students than other teachers.[27]


Competitions are the reasons behind rivalries and fights. Many sports teams, sororities, fraternities, and businesses use the contact hypothesis technique. Having the two groups in competitions do something that requires the groups to work together helps break the rivalries and fights. The groups are given a project to complete, like raising money for a charity or hosting an event. The two groups must be given something that one group cannot complete by itself. This will allow the groups to share a common goal and have equal status and cooperation. The most commonly seen version of contact hypothesis is in the juvenile system. Petty criminals perform community service together to decrease the amount of fights and competition in the system. This also helps the community and the individuals that might have been hurt by the petty criminal.

Once this task is complete it is hypothesized that the groups will find cohesion. The contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954), has influenced a broad application of this concept, attributing to the racial desegregation of schools and research on reducing racial, homosexual, age and AIDS based prejudices.

Brown, Brown, Jackson, Sellers, & Manuel (2003) studied predominantly White colleges with athlete teams. There were two expected factors in determining the reaction to Black teammates: the amount of contact with minority teammates and whether the athletes played an individual or team sport. Team sports (soccer, basketball), as opposed to individual sports (track, swimming), require teamwork and cooperation to win. Results from the comparative study showed that team sports more fully meet the conditions that reduce prejudice through intergroup contact. In these conditions, results show that the attitude of those in team sports became more positive as intergroup contact increased while the attitudes of those in individual sports were unaffected by intergroup contact.[28]

Principle–implementation gap[edit]

The contact hypothesis has been challenged however, Dixon discusses this phenomenon, “in principle a majority can believe in racial justice but in implementation they are unwilling to create policies to change racial disparity" (871).[29]


  1. ^ Brown, R., & Hewstone, M. (2005). An integrative theory of intergroup contact. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 37,pp. 255–343). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
  2. ^ Wright, S. C. (2009). Cross-group contact effects. In S. Otten, T. Kessler & K. Sassenberg (Eds.), Intergroup relations: The role of emotion and motivation (pp. 262–283). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  3. ^ a b Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books
  4. ^ Whitley, B.E., & Kite, M.E. (2010). The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  5. ^ a b c Forsyth, D. R. (2009). Group dynamics (5th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  6. ^ Rothbart, M., & John, O. P. (1985) Social categorization and behavioral episodes: A cognitive analysis of the effects of intergroup contact. Journal of Social Issues, 41, 81–104
  7. ^ Amir, Y. (1976). The role of intergroup contact in the change of prejudice and ethnic relations. In P.A. Katz (Ed.), Towards the elimination of racism (pp. 245-308).New York: Pergamon.
  8. ^ Dovidio, J. F., Eller, A., & Hewstone, M. (2011). Improving intergroup relations through direct, extended and other forms of indirect contact. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 147-160
  9. ^ a b c Wright, S. C., Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., & Ropp, S. A. (1997). The extended contact effect: Knowledge of cross-group friendships and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 73–90
  10. ^ a b Mazziotta, A., Mummendey, A. & Wright, C. S. (2011). Vicarious intergroup contact effects: Applying social-cognitive theory to intergroup contact research. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 255-274.
  11. ^ a b Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2009). Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions? Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. American Psychologist, 64(4), 231–240.
  12. ^ a b Schiappa, E., Gregg, P., & Hewes, D. (2005) The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis Communication Monographs, 72, 92-115
  13. ^ Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956) Mass communication and para-social interaction. Psychiatry, 19, 215–229.
  14. ^ Ortiz, M., & Harwood, J. (2007). A social cognitive approach to intergroup relationships on television. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 51, 615-631.
  15. ^ 8. Paolini, S., Harwood, J., & Rubin, M. (2010). Negative intergroup contact makes group memberships salient: Explaining why intergroup conflict endures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1723-1738.[View]
  16. ^ Barlow, F. K., Paolini, S., Pedersen, A., Hornsey, M. J., Radke, H. R. M., Harwood, J., Rubin, M., & Sibley, C. G. (2012). The contact caveat: Negative contact predicts increased prejudice more than positive contact predicts reduced prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1629-1643. doi: 10.1177/0146167212457953
  17. ^ Graf, S., Paolini, S., & Rubin, M. (2014). Negative intergroup contact is more influential, but positive intergroup contact is more common: Assessing contact prominence and contact prevalence in five Central European countries. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 536-547.
  18. ^ Paolini, S., Harwood, J., Rubin, M., Husnu, S., Joyce, N., & Hewstone, M. (2014). Positive and extensive intergroup contact in the past buffers against the disproportionate impact of negative contact in the present. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 548-562.
  19. ^ Cameron, L., & Rutland, A. (2006). Extended contact through story reading in school: Reducing children's prejudice toward the disabled. Journal of Social Issues, 62, 469-488.
  20. ^ Walther, J. B. (2009). Computer-mediated communication and virtual groups: Applications to interethnic conflict. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 37, 225-238.
  21. ^ Harwood, J. (2010). The contact space: A novel framework for intergroup contact research. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29, 147-177. doi:10.1177/0261927X09359520
  22. ^ Herek, G. M. (1987) The instrumentality of attitudes: Toward a neofunctional theory. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 99–114.
  23. ^ Herek, G. M., & Glunt, E. K. (1993). Interpersonal contact and heterosexuals' attitudes toward gay men: Results from a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 30, 239–244.
  24. ^ Herek, G. M., & Capitanio, J. P. (1996) "Some of my best friends": Intergroup contact, concealable stigma, and heterosexuals' attitudes toward gay men and lesbians Personality. Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 412–424
  25. ^ Savelkoul, Scheepers, P., Tolsma, J., Hagendoorn, L. (2011) "Anti-Muslim Attitudes in The Netherlands: Tests of Contradictory Hypotheses Derived from Ethnic Competition Theory and Intergroup Contact Theory" European Sociological Review, 27, 6, 741-758.
  26. ^ Novotny, J., Polonsky, F. (2011): The Level of Knowledge about Islam and Perception of Islam among Czech and Slovak University Students: does Ignorance Determine Subjective Attitudes? Sociologia, 43, 6, 674-696. [1]
  27. ^ Agirdag, Orhan; Loobuyck, Patrick; Van Houtte, Mieke. "Determinants of Attitudes Toward Muslim Students Among Flemish Teachers: A Research Note". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (2): 368–376. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2012.01637.x. 
  28. ^ Brown, K.T, Brown, T.N., Jackson, J.S., Sellers, R.M., & Manuel, W.J. (2003). Teammates on and off the field? Contact with Black teammates and the racial attitudes of White student athletes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33, 1379-1403.
  29. ^ Dixon, J., Durrheim, K., & Tredoux, C. (2007). Intergroup Contact and Attitudes Toward the Principle and Practice of Racial Equality. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 18(10), 867-872.

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