Contact hypothesis

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The contact hypothesis is a very popular and politically correct theory that claims that increased contact between groups (assuming certain conditions) improves attitudes and relations between the groups. This has been argued to be supported by studies.

One explanation for the claimed effect is that false and negative stereotyping of the other group is claimed to be diminished by contact. Another is that prolonged exposure is claimed to reduce anxiety to being in the presence of individuals from anther group. A third is that contact involving cooperation between individuals is claimed to increase positive attitudes.

Such and similar ideas have a long history. However, the theory was formally introduced by Gordon W. Allport in his 1954 book The nature of prejudice. Allport pointed out that not all contacts between groups improve attitudes and relations and argued that certain conditions must apply for the effect to occur. This is however a distinction often not made when the theory (or similar ideas) is used to advocate for politically correct changes, such as desegregation and mass immigration.



Many of the supporting studies are artificial laboratory experiments with unclear real-world significance.

Many of the studies may involve groups that are similar. For example, studies involving increased contact between different European groups, between university students, between people living in the same area (and thus likely having similar incomes and education), between soldiers (and who often must pass IQ/education minimums and who live in an environment that deliberately minimizes differences between individuals), etc.

The result may be different if increasing contact between more typical groups, such as between an average White and an average Black. More generally, contact with similar persons from another group may possibly decrease false negative stereotyping, but contact with dissimilar persons from another group may possibly decrease false positive stereotyping.

Many of the studies involve working with members from another group towards a common goal. In reality, groups often have different and competing goals.

Many studies involve pleasurable interactions. In reality this may not always apply.

Many of the studies have a clear authority who enforces cooperation between individuals. In reality, different groups often have different and competing leaders.

Many of the studies make it more or less clear to the participants that they are expected to become more friendly to one another and that this is the morally correct outcome. This may influence the results.

The size of the effect is small, according to a 2006 meta-analysis, and even smaller if the conditions are less than ideal.[1]

Real world applicability

That increased contact does not necessarily improve attitudes in the real world was demonstrated after the desegregation of schools in the U.S. A review of studies conducted during and after school desegregation in U.S. found that 46% of the studies reported an increase in "prejudice" among White students, 17% reported a decline in "prejudice", and the remainder reported no change.[2] This despite a general trend during this time period towards increasing political correctness.

Furthermore, "Studies generally gauge the attitudes of white students towards blacks before and after attending integrated schools. A summary of results shows that after integration, whites are as likely to have a worse view of blacks as they are to have an improved view. These, moreover, are the findings for whites who have stayed in integrated schools, and are probably more likely than those who left to have a favorable view of blacks."[3]

The contact hypothesis and some related research on real-world contacts may seem to contradict empirical research results on ethnic heterogeneity, which has found many negative effects (including increased intergroup conflicts and intergroup violence) from increased ethnic heterogeneity in an area and presumably also increased contacts between the different ethnic groups in this area. There are several possible explanations for this seeming contradiction:

  • The increasing real world contacts may not occur under the ideal conditions that are used in many laboratory experiments.
  • The contact effect is small even under ideal conditions. Thus, it may be by far too weak to counter opposition to other groups due to factors related to racial genetic interests, competition regarding resources, crime and other negative behaviors by other groups, etc.
  • Positive contacts may involve atypical individuals. Thus, individuals with higher education tend to report more positive attitudes towards other groups. One explanation is that such individuals tend to only have prolonged contact with out-group individuals that also have a higher education. In contrast, the contacts that average individuals have may be more negative.
  • Reverse causality. Studies do have found that having more out-group friends is associated with more positive out-group attitudes. However, this may simply be a case of reverse causality - individuals who have more positive out-group attitudes become friends with more out-group individuals rather than having more out-group friends causing more positive attitudes.
  • Another example of reverse causality is that negative contacts may be terminated quickly and future contacts avoided, while positive contacts may be prolonged and repeated in the future. This may cause the illusion of more contact causing more positive attitudes, when the causality is instead that positive attitude causes more contact.

See also


  1. Pettigrew TF, Tropp LR (2006) A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. J Pers Soc Psychol 90 (5):751-83.
  2. Stephan, W. G. (1986). The effects of school desegregation: An evaluation 30 years after Brown. In M. J. Saks & L. Saxe (Eds.), Advances in applied social psychology (vol. 3, pp. 181-206). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Integration Has Failed (Part I)
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