Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

The Contact Hypothesis

One of the most heavily studied techniques for prejudice reduction is intergroup contact (Hewstone & Brown, 1986). In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport (1954, p. 281) hypothesized that:

Prejudice (unless deeply rooted in the character structure of the individual) may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports (i.e., by law, custom or local atmosphere), and provided it is of a sort that leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between members of the two groups.

This contention, now widely known as the "contact hypothesis," has received broad research support. In a review of 203 studies from 25 countries -- involving 90,000 participants -- Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp (2000) found that 94% of studies supported the contact hypothesis (that is, 94% of the time, prejudice diminished as intergroup contact increased).

Palestinians throwing stones at Israelis With this level of support, why hasn't intergroup contact eliminated prejudice from society? The problem with using contact to reduce prejudice is not that the contact hypothesis is wrong, but that it is so difficult to meet the conditions Allport outlined. In many real-world environments the fires of prejudice are fueled by conflict and competition between groups that are unequal in status, such as Israelis and Palestinians, Whites and Blacks, or long-time citizens and recent immigrants (Esses, 1998; Levine & Campbell, 1972). Under conditions of competition and unequal status, contact can even increase prejudice rather than decrease it. For example, in a review of studies conducted during and after school desegregation in U.S., Walter Stephan (1986) found that 46% of studies reported an increase in prejudice among White students, 17% report a decline in prejudice, and the remainder reported no change.

The key is to craft situations that will lead to cooperative and interdependent interactions in pursuit of common goals, shifting people to recategorize from "us and them" to "we" (Desforges et al., 1991; Dovidio & Gaertner, 1999; Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1988). Classroom research has found that cooperative learning techniques increase the self-esteem, morale, and empathy of students across racial and ethnic divisions, and also improve the academic performance of minority students without compromising the performance of majority group students (Aronson & Bridgeman, 1979). One of the earliest of these techniques to be studied, the "jigsaw classroom," divides students into small, racially diverse work groups in which each student is given a vital piece of information about the assigned topic (thereby making each group member indispensable to the others). The jigsaw technique was originally developed specifically to reduce racial prejudice, and decades of research suggest that it is highly effective at promoting positive interracial contact (Aronson & Patnoe, 1997).

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