We learned earlier that one of the reasons that people may hold stereotypes and prejudices is that they view the members of outgroups as different from them. Sometime we fear that our interactions with people from different racial groups will be unpleasant, and these anxieties may lead us to avoid interacting with people from those groups (Mallett, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008). This suggests that a good way to reduce prejudice is to help people create closer connections with members of different groups. People will behave more favorable toward others when they learn to see other people as more similar to them, as closer to the self, and to be more concerned about them. This idea is known as the contact hypothesis.
Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) conducted a meta-analysis in which they reviewed over 500 studies that had investigated the effects of intergroup contact on group attitudes. They found that attitudes toward groups that were in contact became more positive over time. Furthermore, positive effects of contact were found on both stereotypes and prejudice and for many different types of contacted groups. The positive effects of intergroup contact may be due in part to increases in concern for others. Galinsky and Moskowitz (2000) found that leading students to take the perspective of another group member, which increased empathy and closeness to the person, also reduced prejudice.
Student behavior on campuses demonstrates the importance of connecting with others and the dangers of not doing so. Sidanius, Van Laar, Levin, and Sinclair (2004) found that students who joined exclusive campus groups, including fraternities, sororities, and minority ethnic organizations, were more prejudiced to begin with and became even less connected and more intolerant of members of other social groups over the time that they remained in the organizations. One explanation is that memberships in these groups focused the students on themselves and other people who were very similar to them, leading them to become less tolerant of others who were different.
One large scale intergroup contact example came about as a result of the United States (U.S.) Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which overturned an earlier court ruling and declared state laws establishing separate public schools for African American and White students to be unconstitutional. As a result, schools had to be integrated, which caused severe political unrest in many states, but particularly in the Southern United States. Integrating schools had a profound impact on the racial composition of classrooms, improved educational and occupational achievement of African American students and increased the desire of African American students to interact with Whites by forming cross-race friendships (Stephan, 1999). Overall, desegregating schools in the United States supports the expectation that intergroup contact, at least in the long run, can be successful in changing attitudes. There is substantial support for the effectiveness of intergroup contact in improving group attitudes in a wide variety of situations, including schools, work organizations, military forces, and public housing.
Although intergroup contact does work, it is not always a cure because the conditions necessary for it to be successful are frequently not met. Contact can be expected to work only in situations that create the appropriate opportunities for change. For one, contact will only be effective if it provides information demonstrating that the existing stereotypes held by the individuals are incorrect. When we learn more about groups that we didn’t know much about before, we learn more of the truth about them, leading us to be less biased in our beliefs; however, if our interactions with the group members do not allow us to learn new beliefs, then contact cannot work.
When we first meet someone from another category, we are likely to rely almost exclusively on our stereotypes (Brodt & Ross, 1998) but when we get to know the individual well (e.g., as a student in a classroom gets to know other students over a school year), we may get to the point where we ignore that individual’s group membership almost completely, responding to him or her entirely at the individual level (Madon et al., 1998). In this way contact is effective in part because it leads us to get past our perceptions of others as group members and to see them as people.