Since the 1940s and 1950s, psychologists and sociologists have been interested in what’s become known as the “contact hypothesis," the deceptively simple notion that increasing contact between groups (e.g., the French and the English; racial groups in the US) can reduce prejudice toward an outgroup.
On the one hand, this seems very likely to work. In fact, it may seem obvious, perhaps leading you to claim, “My grandmother could have told you that!” On the other hand, contact can be fraught with tension, anxiety, conflict, and mismatched goals. After all, there are plenty of examples where groups experience considerable contact (e.g., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Northern Ireland “Troubles”) and yet outgroup strife is rife. Consider also that men have plenty of contact with women, yet still sexism remains a very real problem in society.
Findings in empirical contact literature
What does the psychological record have to say about this phenomenon? Fortunately, Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) conducted a very extensive and exhaustive review of the empirical contact literature, including surveys, experiments, and longitudinal analyses (i.e., considering contact effects over time).
Across methodologies, and across different types of contact, they found that there was a clear meta-analytic effect across the 500+ studies examined: Increased contact results in a relatively small but very reliable reduction in prejudice. The researchers uncovered several moderators of this effect (for instance, the effects are stronger among the dominant majority group than among the disadvantaged minority, and stronger for contact with sexual minorities than for contact with the elderly).
The moderator I find most interesting concerns the fact that contact effects on prejudice are stronger when interactants have no choice but to participate (relative to when they are free to engage in contact or not). For this reason, I decided to examine contact in several prisons (Hodson, 2008). The results were clear: The more contact White inmates experienced with Black inmates, or the more positive the contact, the more positive their attitudes toward the Black inmates. These results held in two different prisons, and are quite remarkable considering that prisons are contexts rife with dominance and conflict (hardly the hallmark of “idealized” contact settings).
But it goes without saying that contact is no panacea for prejudice (Hewstone, 2003; Hodson & Hewstone, 2013b). Indeed, researchers (e.g., Dixon et al., 2005) have begun to question whether the field has been too quick to embrace contact as a solution to prejudice. Many of these criticisms are, in my opinion, valid and worthy of discussion. But increased contact, as a prejudice intervention, continues to impress and fascinate me. Perhaps most impressively, contact works well (if not best) among those people predisposed to be prejudiced in the first place (for summaries see Hodson, 2011; Hodson, Costello, & MacInnis, 2013).
Dixon, J., Durrheim, K., & Tredoux, C. (2005). Beyond the optimal contact strategy: A reality check for the contact hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 697–711.
Hodson, G. (2008). Interracial prison contact: The pros for (socially dominant) cons. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47, 325-351.
Hodson, G. (2011). Do ideologically intolerant people benefit from intergroup contact? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 154-159.
Hodson, G., Costello, K., & MacInnis, C.C. (2013). Is intergroup contact beneficial among intolerant people? Exploring individual differences in the benefits of contact on attitudes. In G. Hodson & M. Hewstone (Eds.), Advances in intergroup contact (pp. 49-80). London, UK: Psychology Press.
Hodson, G., Harry, H., & Mitchell, A. (2009). Independent benefits of contact and friendship on attitudes toward homosexuals among authoritarians and highly identified heterosexuals. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 509-525. . DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.558
Hodson, G., & Hewstone, M. (Eds.) (2013a). Advances in intergroup contact. London, UK: Psychology Press. Paperback: 978-1-84872-114-2; Hardback: 978-1-84872-054-1
Hodson, G., & Hewstone, M. (2013b). Introduction: Advances in intergroup contact. In G. Hodson & M. Hewstone (Eds.), Advances in intergroup contact (pp. 3-20). London, UK: Psychology Press.
Hewstone, M. (2003). Intergroup contact: Panacea for prejudice? The Psychologist, 16, 352–355.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751–783.
MacInnis, C.C., & Hodson, G. (2012). “Where the rubber hits the road” en route to intergroup harmony: Examining contact intentions and contact behavior under meta-stereotype threat. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51, 363-373.