Intergroup Contact Theory

What can we do to reduce prejudice?^

In 1954, Gordon Allport created the Contact Hypothesis in an attempt to answer that question, and it has been a successful framework in the struggle against prejudice for many decades. As alluded to by its name, the Contact Hypothesis focuses on contact between people of different backgrounds (e.g., cultures) and assumes that such contact helps reduce prejudice between them if four conditions are met among the individuals involved in the contact; 1. equal status,  2. common goals, 3. cooperation, and 4. institutional support.

Intergroup Contact Theory

While oftentimes used interchangeably with Contact Hypothesis, Intergroup Contact Theory (ICT) is named differently because it adds some unique elements to Allport’s original theory which help to explain how and why the above conditions actually work to reduce prejudice between groups.

In 1998, Thomas Pettigrew (a mentee of Allport) suggested four mental processes that occur during contact between people from different groups:

1.Learning about Outgroups: When interacting with people who are from different cultures, you are likely to learn information about them and their groups, information that will counteract current prejudices/stereotypes you have about them.

2.Changing Behavior: As you interact with people from different groups, the actions and behaviors you engage in together could lead to changes in your attitude towards them.

3. Generating Affective Ties: Positive emotions, emotional ties, and feelings of empathy towards people of other cultures will form when you spend time with them.

4. Ingroup Reappraisal: Finally, spending more and more time with people from different cultural groups will lead to development of new insights about your own group, which can lead to you questioning stereotypes your group has of other groups (e.g., stereotypes that white U.S. Americans have of brown Arab Americans).

Contact Works!

Intergroup Contact Theory tells us contact works in reducing prejudice between people. It works because the four factors mentioned above occur, and they lead to an increase in knowledge about, and feelings of empathy for, the ‘other’ outgroup members, and a decrease in anxiety about them. This in turn usually leads to a decrease in prejudice, which is what we want.

^In this post, ‘prejudice’ also refers to racism, stereotypes, ethnocentrism, discrimination, and any other related problems, for the sake of space, though they are all unique terms with different meanings.

Disclaimer: The above post is part of a series on intercultural/intergroup communication theories I did on a former blog.

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