What Is the Contact Hypothesis in Psychology?

Can getting to know members of other groups reduce prejudice?

A close-up of a group of people who are standing in a semi-circle and have placed their outstretched hands on top of each other.

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The contact hypothesis is a theory in psychology which suggests that prejudice and conflict between groups can be reduced if members of the groups interact with each other.

Key Takeaways: Contact Hypothesis

  • The contact hypothesis suggests that interpersonal contact between groups can reduce prejudice.
  • According to Gordon Allport, who first proposed the theory, four conditions are necessary to reduce prejudice: equal status, common goals, cooperation, and institutional support.
  • While the contact hypothesis has been studied most often in the context of racial prejudice, researchers have found that contact was able to reduce prejudice against members of a variety of marginalized groups.

Historical Background

The contact hypothesis was developed in the middle of the 20th century by researchers who were interested in understanding how conflict and prejudice could be reduced. Studies in the 1940s and 1950s, for example, found that contact with members of other groups was related to lower levels of prejudice. In one study from 1951, researchers looked at how living in segregated or desegregated housing units was related to prejudice and found that, in New York (where housing was desegregated), white study participants reported lower prejudice than white participants in Newark (where housing was still segregated).

One of the key early theorists studying the contact hypothesis was Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, who published the influential book The Nature of Prejudice in 1954. In his book, Allport reviewed previous research on intergroup contact and prejudice. He found that contact reduced prejudice in some instances, but it wasn’t a panacea—there were also cases where intergroup contact made prejudice and conflict worse. In order to account for this, Allport sought to figure out when contact worked to reduce prejudice successfully, and he developed four conditions that have been studied by later researchers.

Allport’s Four Conditions

According to Allport, contact between groups is most likely to reduce prejudice if the following four conditions are met:

  1. The members of the two groups have equal status. Allport believed that contact in which members of one group are treated as subordinate wouldn’t reduce prejudice—and could actually make things worse.
  2. The members of the two groups have common goals.
  3. The members of the two groups work cooperatively. Allport wrote, “Only the type of contact that leads people to do things together is likely to result in changed attitudes.”
  4. There is institutional support for the contact (for example, if group leaders or other authority figures support the contact between groups).

Evaluating the Contact Hypothesis

In the years since Allport published his original study, researchers have sought to test out empirically whether contact with other groups can reduce prejudice. In a 2006 paper, Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp conducted a meta-analysis: they reviewed the results of over 500 previous studies—with approximately 250,000 research participants—and found support for the contact hypothesis. Moreover, they found that these results were not due to self-selection (i.e. people who were less prejudiced choosing to have contact with other groups, and people who were more prejudiced choosing to avoid contact), because contact had a beneficial effect even when participants hadn’t chosen whether or not to have contact with members of other groups.

While the contact hypothesis has been studied most often in the context of racial prejudice, the researchers found that contact was able to reduce prejudice against members of a variety of marginalized groups. For example, contact was able to reduce prejudice based on sexual orientation and prejudice against people with disabilities. The researchers also found that contact with members of one group not only reduced prejudice towards that particular group, but reduced prejudice towards members of other groups as well.

What about Allport’s four conditions? The researchers found a larger effect on prejudice reduction when at least one of Allport’s conditions was met. However, even in studies that didn’t meet Allport’s conditions, prejudice was still reduced—suggesting that Allport’s conditions may improve relationships between groups, but they aren’t strictly necessary.

Why Does Contact Reduce Prejudice?

Researchers have suggested that contact between groups can reduce prejudice because it reduces feelings of anxiety (people may be anxious about interacting with members of a group they have had little contact with). Contact may also reduce prejudice because it increases empathy and helps people to see things from the other group’s perspective. According to psychologist Thomas Pettigrew and his colleagues, contact with another group allows people “to sense how outgroup members feel and view the world.”

Psychologist John Dovidio and his colleagues suggested that contact may reduce prejudice because it changes how we categorize others. One effect of contact can be decategorization, which involves seeing someone as an individual, rather than as only a member of their group. Another outcome of contact can be recategorization, in which people no longer see someone as part of a group that they’re in conflict with, but rather as a member of a larger, shared group.

Another reason why contact is beneficial is because it fosters the formation of friendships across group lines.

Limitations and New Research Directions

Researchers have acknowledged that intergroup contact can backfire, especially if the situation is stressful, negative, or threatening, and the group members did not choose to have contact with the other group. In his 2019 book The Power of Human, psychology researcher Adam Waytz suggested that power dynamics may complicate intergroup contact situations, and that attempts to reconcile groups that are in conflict need to consider whether there is a power imbalance between the groups. For example, he suggested that, in situations where there is a power imbalance, interactions between group members may be more likely to be productive if the less powerful group is given the opportunity to express what their experiences have been, and if the more powerful group is encouraged to practice empathy and seeing things from the less powerful group’s perspective.

Can Contact Promote Allyship?

One especially promising possibility is that contact between groups might encourage more powerful majority group members to work as allies—that is, to work to end oppression and systematic injustices. For example, Dovidio and his colleagues suggested that “contact also provides a potentially powerful opportunity for majority-group members to foster political solidarity with the minority group.” Similarly, Tropp—one of the co-authors of the meta-analysis on contact and prejudice—tells New York Magazine’s The Cut that “there’s also the potential for contact to change the future behavior of historically advantaged groups to benefit the disadvantaged.”

While contact between groups isn’t a panacea, it’s a powerful tool to reduce conflict and prejudice—and it may even encourage members of more powerful groups to become allies who advocate for the rights of members of marginalized groups.

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