Monday, July 17, 2006

Intergroup contact and prejudice

Here is a short review from the current issue of Science of a new paper in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Pettigrew and Tropp). It reports on a meta analysis of the effect of inter-group contact on prejudice. Here is the review. I didn't put the abstract because I thought this review was more useful. With all the current literature on the role of punishment in human cooperation, it is interesting that they find that "official sanction" (although not sure exactly what this means) is one of the more important features that contribute to the reduction of prejudice.

The effect of contact between groups on prejudice has been a topic of research at least as far back as the middle of the 20th century. Since then, there have been a very large number of studies and many reviews of this literature. Pettigrew and Tropp have conducted a meta-analysis of what has become known as intergroup contact theory. They (and their dedicated research assistants) have combed through published papers and unpublished dissertations, using a methodological (rather than topical) basis for inclusion; the final data set covers 515 studies, containing over 700 independent samples representing a quarter million individuals spread over 38 countries. The summary finding is that intergroup contact reduces prejudice.

Their statistical analyses reveal that this cannot be ascribed to self-selection by the participants, or to a publication bias toward positive results, or to the rigor of the research (methodologically stronger studies yielded larger effect sizes). Roughly half of the studies focused on nonracial and nonethnic groups (as described by sexual orientation or physical or mental disability, for example), and the effect sizes seen within this subset were the same as that for the racial/ethnic targets that stimulated the historical development of intergroup contact theory. Furthermore, it appears that the effects on individual attitudes can generalize to other members of the outgroup and even to other outgroups.

How is this mediated? They find that Allport's four features (common goals, intergroup cooperation, equal status, and official sanction) contribute significantly to the reduction of prejudice but are not essential, and that the last of the four conditions may be the most important one. Greater contact may reduce feelings of uncertainty or discomfort that might otherwise coalesce into anxiety or perceived threat, which might in turn harden into prejudice. Yet these ameliorative shifts may not survive in the absence of normative or authoritarian support, and studies of why contact fails to curb prejudice are needed. -- GJC

J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 90, 751 (2006).

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