Intergroup anxiety

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Intergroup anxiety is the social phenomenon identified by Walter and Cookie Stephan in 1985 that describes the ambiguous feelings of discomfort or anxiety when interacting with members of other groups. Such emotions also constitute intergroup anxiety when one is merely anticipating interaction with members of an outgroup.[1] Expectations that interactions with foreign members of outgroups will result in an aversive experience is believed to be the cause of intergroup anxiety, with an affected individual being anxious or unsure about a number of issues.[2] Methods of reducing intergroup anxiety stress facilitating positive intergroup contact.[3]


Widely theorized causes of intergroup anxiety are based on the feeling that interactions will have negative consequences. These can be grouped as follows:

  • Negative evaluations from the outgroup, often for failing to be aware of and demonstrate appropriate behaviors that are congruent with the outgroup's social norms or possibly being rejected or mocked by members of the outgroup
  • Negative evaluations from the ingroup, e.g., possibly being ostracized from one's own ingroup for associating with members of an outgroup
  • Negative psychological outcomes for the self, such as feeling uncomfortable or being deemed prejudiced
  • Negative behavioral outcomes for the self stemming from the belief that members of an outgroup are potentially dangerous and pose a threat to oneself and others[3]

The amount of anxiety one feels in such an instance is hypothesized to vary according to a variety of personal factors. Negative prior relations between groups predict more intergroup anxiety,[4] and one's own experiences with individual members of the outgroup can affect anxiety about interaction with others from the group (often more salient if they are negative).[5][6] Negative evaluations of outgroups often incorrectly stem from personal interactions due to a generalization from interpersonal contact to intergroup contact.[7] The subsequent lack of positive contact results in negative expectancies of upcoming intergroup contact, leading to anxiety, heightened hostility, and a desire to avoid this contact. This cycle limits the possibility for positive contact.[2]

Another factor that predicts intergroup anxiety is a strong level of identification with one's ingroup. This ethnocentrism can cause ingroup members to look down upon outgroup members, yielding negative interactions.[6] Imbalance of power in the specific situation can also increase anxiety.[3][8] Linkage between intergroup anxiety and resulting intergroup hostility is likely, as individuals typically experience aversion to stimuli that arouse negative emotions.[9]


Intergroup anxiety is particularly worthy of attention as its implications are apparent through various research findings. An average correlation of r=.46 exists between intergroup anxiety and prejudice, suggesting a notable relationship between the two. Furthermore, intergroup anxiety has been found to correspond with decreased frequencies of interactions with an outgroup, lower levels of contact with members of an outgroup, the utilization of negative stereotypes of outgroup members, and negative intergroup contact.[10] Because ingroup members experiencing anxiety are motivated to avoid contact with outgroups, they rely on stereotypes in assessing their few interactions, often judging the entire outgroup to be homogeneous.[6] Suffering this anxiety at all can cause ingroup members to instantly dislike outgroup members and to view interactions as more negative than they were.[3] These perceptions can lead to discrimination, hostility, and continued anxiety in outgroup contact situations.

Anxiety causes exaggerated behaviors in many intergroup contact situations, often leading to overly aggressive behavior. However, anxiety can also manifest itself in the opposite manner: anxious ingroup members may act overly friendly in an attempt to avoid seeming ignorant or prejudiced. Such unnatural behavior can add to the distrust felt by ingroup and outgroup members, causing the interaction to be negatively perceived.[6] This phenomenon is not confined to majority group members; intergroup anxiety is also felt by minority groups interacting with the majority. For example, reported attitudes of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans toward White Americans include intergroup anxiety.[11] This trend is also reflected in nationality group members' ratings of one another, with higher levels of intergroup anxiety resulting in more negative ratings.[12]

Another notable characteristic of intergroup anxiety is its self-reinforcing nature, promoting behaviors that keep it actively present. The phenomenon motivates one to avoid contact with outgroup members, or at least make it as short as possible. Anxiety causes even necessary contact to be marred by lack of full attention.[3] Additionally, even outgroup-initiated behaviors will not necessarily force positive interactions upon anxious ingroup members. The fact that these interactions have been initiated by the group inspiring anxiety has been shown to cause ingroup members to perceive them as overly negative.[13] These factors consequentially extinguish the opportunity to have a positive experience with the perceived outgroup. Such positive experiences are the crucial component needed to undermine negative expectations and stereotypes.[14]

Simply the presence of anxiety may play a role in exacerbating tensions between groups. When an outgroup member can tell that an ingroup member is experiencing anxiety, it has been shown that the contact becomes tenser and is perceived less favorably by both groups.[15] This finding would be discouraging of continued intergroup contact among the anxious, but another study suggests that it may not have this consequence. Ingroup members tend to be significantly better than outgroup members at detecting other ingroup members' anxiety.[16] This finding would suggest that anxiety is better hidden than its sufferer thinks, and that the subsequent negative perception of the interaction is purely mental and can be overcome.

Anxiety reduction[edit]

The main idea on which intergroup anxiety research is founded is that facilitating positive intergroup contact leads to a reduction in intergroup anxiety. Most research methodology relies not on actually bringing groups together, but instead on having individuals imagine contact with an outgroup.[3] Imagination exercises alone have proven not only to be an accurate predictor of future behavior, but also to reduce intergroup anxiety without any actual contact.[17] This finding holds steady even when study participants are especially high in anxiety[18] or ideologically intolerant of people from the other outgroup.[19]

Gordon Allport's intergroup contact theory is the basis for this line of research into intergroup anxiety reduction.[6] The theory hypothesizes that only groups meeting under four conditions will succeed in reducing intergroup contact among their members: groups must be of equal status, work towards common goals, experience intergroup cooperation, and have the support of authorities, laws, or customs.[7] Since then, other researchers have found more factors that predict reduced intergroup anxiety. Interactions including a possibility of friendship have been shown to be more effective,[7][20] particularly when that potential is reinforced by mutual self-disclosure, a characteristic usually absent in strained intergroup contact.[21] Situations facilitating the forging of a common ingroup identity are also commonly used to avoid and reduce intergroup anxiety,[22] and are often accompanied by the additionally helpful development of empathy between groups.[6] Activities or the imagination of scenarios involving cooperation between groups can also reduce anxiety.[23] Most importantly, it is critical that these reduction exercises take place in a society that fundamentally supports peaceful and successful intergroup contact.[7]


  1. ^ Whitley, Bernard E.; Kite, Mary E. (2009), The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination, Cengage Learning, pp. 174–175, ISBN 9780495811282 
  2. ^ a b Plant, E. Ashby; Devine, Patricia G. (June 2003), "The antecedents and implications of interracial anxiety", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29 (6), pp. 790–801, doi:10.1177/0146167203029006011 
  3. ^ a b c d e f John Levine and Michael Hogg, ed. (2010). "Intergroup Anxiety". Encyclopedia of Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference. pp. 465–468. 
  4. ^ Britt, Thomas; Kurt Bonieci; Theresa Vescio; Monica Biernat; Lisa Brown (1996). "Intergroup Anxiety: a Person x Situation Approach". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 22 (11): 1177–1188. doi:10.1177/01461672962211008. 
  5. ^ Greenland, Katy; Rupert Brown (1999). "Categorization and intergroup anxiety in contact between British and Japanese nationals". European Journal of Social Psychology. 29 (4): 503–521. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-0992(199906)29:4. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, ed. (2007). "Intergroup Anxiety". Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. pp. 492–493. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Intergroup Relations and Culture". Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. Elsevier Science & Technology. 2004. 
  8. ^ Stephan, Walter G.; Stephan, Cookie White (April 1985), "Intergroup Anxiety", Journal of Social Issues, 41 (3), pp. 157–175, doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1985.tb01134.x 
  9. ^ Deckers, Lambert (January 2009), Motivation: Biological, psychological, and environmental (3rd ed.), Boston: Allyn & Bacon, ISBN 9780205610815 
  10. ^ Riek, Blake M.; Mania, Eric W. & Gaertner, Samuel L. (November 2006), "Intergroup threat and outgroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 10 (4), pp. 336–353, PMID 17201592, doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr1004_4 
  11. ^ Islam, Mir Rabiul; Hewstone, Miles (December 1993), "Dimensions of contact as predictors of intergroup anxiety, perceived outgroup variability, and outgroup attitude: An integrative model", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19 (6), pp. 700–710, doi:10.1177/0146167293196005 
  12. ^ Stephan, Walter G.; Diaz-Loving, Rolando & Duran, Anne (2000), "Integrated threat theory and intercultural attitudes: Mexico and the United States", Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, 31 (2), pp. 240–249, doi:10.1177/0022022100031002006 
  13. ^ Van Zomeren, Martijn; Agneta Fischer; Russell Spears (2007). "Testing the Limits of Tolerance: How Intergroup Anxiety Amplifies Negative and Offensive Responses to Out-Group-Initiated Contact". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 33 (12): 1686–1699. doi:10.1177/0146167207307485. 
  14. ^ Devine, Patricia G.; Monteith, Margo J. (1999), "Automaticity and control in stereotyping", in Chaiken, Shelly; Trope, Yaacov, Dual-process theories in social psychology, New York: Guilford Press, pp. 339–360, ISBN 9781572304215 
  15. ^ West, Tessa V.; Shelton, J. Nicole; Trail, Thomas E. (2009). "Relational Anxiety in Interracial Interactions". Psychological Science. 20 (3): 289–292. PMID 19207693. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02289.x. 
  16. ^ Gray, Heather M.; Mendes, Wendy Berry; Denny-Brown, Carrigan (2008). "An In-Group Advantage in Detecting Intergroup Anxiety". Psychological Science. 19 (12): 1233–1237. PMC 2659396Freely accessible. PMID 19121129. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02230.x. 
  17. ^ Turner, R. N.; Crisp, R. J.; Lambert, E. (2007). "Imagining Intergroup Contact Can Improve Intergroup Attitudes". Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 10 (4): 427–441. doi:10.1177/1368430207081533. 
  18. ^ Birtel, M. D.; Crisp, R. J. (2012). "Imagining intergroup contact is more cognitively difficult for people higher in intergroup anxiety but this does not detract from its effectiveness". Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 15 (6): 744–761. doi:10.1177/1368430212443867. 
  19. ^ Hodson, G. (2011). "Do Ideologically Intolerant People Benefit From Intergroup Contact?". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 20 (3): 154–159. doi:10.1177/0963721411409025. 
  20. ^ Pettigrew, Thomas (1998). "Intergroup Contact Theory". Annual Review of Psychology. 49: 65–85. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.49.1.65. 
  21. ^ Tam, T. (2006). "Intergroup Contact and Grandparent-Grandchild Communication: The Effects of Self-Disclosure on Implicit and Explicit Biases Against Older People". Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 9 (3): 413–429. doi:10.1177/1368430206064642. 
  22. ^ Riek, B. M.; Mania, E. W.; Gaertner, S. L.; McDonald, S. A.; Lamoreaux, M. J. (2010). "Does a common ingroup identity reduce intergroup threat?". Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 13 (4): 403–423. doi:10.1177/1368430209346701. 
  23. ^ Kuchenbrandt, D.; Eyssel, F.; Seidel, S. K. (2013). "Cooperation makes it happen: Imagined intergroup cooperation enhances the positive effects of imagined contact". Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 16 (5): 635–647. doi:10.1177/1368430212470172.