Close Encounters

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Science  14 Jul 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5784, pp. 148
DOI: 10.1126/science.313.5784.148c

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 They (and their dedicated research assistants) have combed through published papers and unpublished dissertations, using a methodological (rather than topical) basis for inclusion; the final data set covers 515 studies, containing over 700 independent samples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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