Contact hypothesis

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In criminology, psychology, and sociology, the intergroup contact theory 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. 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.


While Gordon W. Allport is often credited with the development of the contact hypothesis, the idea that interpersonal contact could improve intergroup relations was not a novel one. For example, in the late 1940s, sociologist, R. M. Williams, described interpersonal collaboration with goal interdependence as a worthwhile strategy to reduce intergroup hostility.[7] 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.[8]

The effects of intergroup contact[edit]

The positive effects of intergroup contact have been substantially documented across both field and experimental studies, across a variety of contact situations, and between various social groups. Most recently, meta-analytic evidence of 515 separate studies has provided strong evidence to support its claims. Specifically, this extensive analysis found that face-to-face contact between group members significantly reduced prejudice; the more contact groups had, the less prejudice group members reported.[9] Furthermore, the beneficial effects of intergroup contact were significantly greater when the contact situation was structured to include Allport's facilitating conditions for optimal contact.


Intergroup contact and prejudice towards African Americans[edit]

The majority of intergroup contact research has focused on reducing prejudice towards African Americans. For example, in one study, Brown, Brown, Jackson, Sellers, and Manuel (2003) investigated the amount of contact White athletes had with Black teammates and whether the athletes played an individual or team sport. Team sports (e.g., football or basketball), as opposed to individual sports (e.g., track or swimming), require teamwork and cooperative interactions to win. Results showed that White athletes who played team sports reported less prejudice than athletes who played individual sports.[10]

Intergroup contact and prejudice towards homosexuality[edit]

The contact hypothesis has proven to be highly effective in alleviating prejudice directed toward homosexuals.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

Intergroup contact and prejudice towards Muslims 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]

Intergroup contact with immigrant groups within the United States[edit]

Daniel J. Hopkins presented the idea that local conditions within a community or in other words changes in local immigrant demographics can affect the attitudes of people on immigrants. This can include the stereotyping of immigrants and/or a development of pro or anti-immigrant ideas. These attitudes may be shaped by experiences the non-immigrant population has with the immigrant population. He believes that this idea is not necessarily universal but that certain conditions play a role on the development of attitudes [18].

Psychological process involved in intergroup contact[edit]

A number of psychological process have been hypothesised to explain how and why intergroup contact is able to reduce prejudice and improve intergroup relations. Firstly, Allport (1954) argued that intergroup contact facilitates learning about the outgroup, and this new outgroup knowledge leads to prejudice reduction.[3] Secondly, intergroup contact is believed to reduce the fear and anxiety people have when interacting with the outgroup, which in turn reduces their negative evaluations of the outgroup.[19] Thirdly, intergroup contact is hypothesised to increase people's ability to take the perspective of the outgroup and empathize with their concerns.[20] Empirical research has only found weak support for role of outgroup knowledge in prejudice reduction; however, the affective mechanisms of intergroup anxiety and outgroup empathy have accumulated extensive empirical support.[21]

Indirect intergroup contact[edit]

One of the most important advances in research on intergroup contact is the growing evidence for a number of indirect, non-face-to-face intergroup contact strategies as a means to improve relations between social groups.[22] While the benefits of direct intergroup contact have been empirically established, its implementation is often not practical. For example, in many countries, racial and religious groups are often residentially, educationally or occupationally segregated, which limits the opportunity for direct contact. However, even when the opportunity for direct intergroup contact is high, anxiety and fear can produce a negative or hostile contact experience or lead to the avoidance of the contact situation altogether.

Indirect forms of intergroup contact include:

Extended contact[edit]

The extended contact hypothesis 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. Correlational research has demonstrated that individuals who report knowledge that an ingroup member has an outgroup friend typically report more positive outgroup attitudes, while experimental research has shown that providing ingroup members with this information creates the same positive effect.[23]

Vicarious contact[edit]

Vicarious contact involves simply observing an ingroup member interact with an outgroup member.[24] For example, positive media portrayals of intergroup interactions on television and radio (also known as parasocial contact) have the potential to reduce the prejudice of millions of viewers and listeners.[25]

Imagined contact[edit]

The 'imagined contact hypothesis' was put forward by Richard J. Crisp and Rhiannon Turner (2009)[26] and proposes that simply imagining a positive encounter with a member or members of an outgroup category can promote more positive intergroup attitudes.

Electronic contact[edit]

Electronic contact involves an ingroup member interacting with an outgroup member over the Internet[27][28] and includes text-based, video-based or a mixture of both text- and video-based online interactions. Electronic contact has been empirically shown to reduce inter-religious prejudice between Christian and Muslim students in Australia in both the short[29] and long term[30], as well between Catholic and Protestant students in Northern Ireland[31]. In the context of sexual prejudice, research also has shown that interacting online with a member of the outgroup is a particularly useful particularly useful as a prejudice-reduction strategy among individuals who typically report ideologically intolerant beliefs[32]. Additionally, in the context of mental health stigma, participants who experienced a brief interaction with a person diagnosed with schizophrenia reported reduced fear, anger, and stereotyping toward people with schizophrenia in general compared to a control condition[33].

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,[34] the negative contact hypothesis. Recent evidence has confirmed the prediction,[35] 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.[36] Recent research has also shown that people's past 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.[37]


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