The Contact Hypothesis of Gordon Allport and the Reduction of Prejudice
The literature covering the nature of prejudice, its scope, the effects of prejudice, and methods to reduce on prejudice is among the most extraordinary body of literature in all of social science. The total volume of research on the topic of prejudice is quite extraordinary and this body of work reflects several decades of scholarly investigation of the meaning of prejudice, its assessment, its etiology, its consequences, and methods to reduce prejudice. There are very few areas of study that have attracted a greater range of theoretical perspectives than the area of prejudice. Theorizing about the nature and manifestation of prejudice has also been accompanied by many spirited debates about the appropriate way to conceptualize methods to reduce prejudice in people. The result has been a rich body of measurement instruments and reduction strategies. The most enduring of the strategies to reduce prejudice is known as the contact hypothesis, which states that under certain conditions contact between groups leads to a decrease in prejudice. The current paper reviews some of the literature for and against the effectiveness of contact.
Statement of the Problem
For the purposes of this paper we will describe prejudice as it is normally defined in the literature as an unfair negative attitude directed towards a particular social group or directed towards a member of that particular social group. Stereotypes, on the other hand are defined as overgeneralizations about a particular group that in effect are especially rigid, most often are factually incorrect, and this set of beliefs often goes along with the negative feelings and attitudes that are associated with prejudice. Discrimination is defined as the unjust treatment of members of these different social groups originating from prejudicial attitudes and stereotyping (Allport, 1954). Thus, prejudicial attitudes toward certain groups are the driving force behind certain negative beliefs and unscrupulous behaviors directed towards certain groups. Developing functional and practical methods to reduce prejudice should lead to reductions in stereotyping and discrimination.
While the methodological complexities and the abundance of theoretical contributions provided by the literature on prejudice are impressive, it can sometimes be less clear with regards to applying the practical knowledge that it all of this research and theorizing has generated. The study of prejudice creates a center of attention because researchers and other scholars endeavor to understand and cure the social problems associated with it such as inequality, discrimination, and prejudicially motivated violence. These goals are also shared by many government officials and huge sums of money are spent annually on prospective interventions aimed at reducing prejudice in our schools, in the workplace, and in areas plagued with intergroup conflict. Given these practical objectives associated with the research on prejudice it is important to understand what the extensive body of research has learned regarding some of the more effective ways to reduce prejudice. The current paper focuses on the most enduring theoretical method to reduce prejudice in people, Gordon Allport's contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954).
Strategies for reducing prejudice that rely on an intergroup approach originate from early theories that the perception and actions of most people are designed to be favorable towards members of their own group (termed "the ingroup" in the literature) relative to groups that they are not a member of (termed "the outgroup"). There have traditionally been two major theoretical lines of thinking that have inspired specific techniques to deal with this in-group/out-group bias in people. The first of these is Gordon Allport's contact hypothesis (Allport 1954), which states that exposure to members of the out-group under certain optimal conditions will result in a reduction in prejudice. The second group of theories are termed "social identity and categorization theories" (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). These theories advocate interventions that break down or rearrange social boundaries. However the contact hypothesis has received far more attention in the literature.
The contact hypothesis of Gordon Allport states that under certain types of favorable conditions contact between two groups should lead to a significant reduction in prejudice. According to Allport there are four conditions of contact that facilitate positive attitudes and reduce prejudice: groups must have equal status within the contact situation, there should be no competition within the contact situation, the groups must seek superordinate goals together within the contact situation, and the authorities must approve the contact and strongly endorse a reduction in tensions between the groups.
The classic study cited in undergraduate and graduate texts to provide evidence for the validity of the contact hypothesis is the "Robbers Cave" study (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961). The subjects of this experiment were 22 eleven-year-old boys. These boys were taken to a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park which is in the state of Oklahoma. Prior to the actual experiment, the subjects were randomly divided into two groups. The groups were then separately transported to the park and housed in cabins. Initially the two groups were not aware of the existence of the other group. During the first week of the experiment each group spent time bonding with each other. The groups also developed a name for themselves which was put on flags in the camp and on their shirts. The groups were named the Eagles and Rattlers respectively.
Eventually, the groups learned of the existence of the other group. Then a series of competitive activities between the groups was performed which resulted in rewards for the members of the winning group. As the antagonism increased between the groups so did name calling and singing offensive songs directed at the outgroup. Following this, the groups become so hostile towards each other that they refused to eat in the same dining room together.
Next the experimenters arranged a series of joint activities for the two groups to engage in. The groups were taken to a different location and were told that they are had a shortage of drinking water due to vandalization of their water supply and the two groups had to work together repair the damage done by the vandals. During the repair significant cooperation and a reduction in antagonism was observed between the members of the two groups. During the second joint activity the groups needed to interact with each other and agree upon a movie all of them should watch. Later, during the dinner after the film the boys were eating together with no hostility. The study is so often cited to support the contact hypothesis that many undergraduate students are taught that this simple contact can remedy prejudice.
There have been a number of recent investigations of the contact hypothesis that suggest that the process is not be as straightforward as Sherif et al. (1961) described it. For instance, in one of the most supportive studies of the validity of Allport's contact hypothesis, Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) report the results of an extensive meta-analysis of studies carried out between 1940 and 2000 on intergroup contact and its reduction on prejudice. Meta-analysis is combines the results of many studies that deal with a set of related research hypotheses to determine the overall results of all the studies combined (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2011). The logic behind the use of meta-analytic studies is that combining more studies results in more sound evidence for or against the support of a hypothesis (greater power). The resulting statistic, the effect size, for which a weighted average is often the output of meta-analyses, indicates the relative overall strength of the findings in the studies combined. Cohen's classical interpretation of effect size suggests that an effect sizes of 0.2 to 0.3 are considered a small effect, an effect size of around 0.5 a medium effect, and effect sizes from 0.8 upward are considered large effects (Cohen, 1992).
Pettigrew and Tropp report the results of 713 independent samples from 515 studies. The overall effect size was -.215, indicating a small effect, albeit it was significant due to the large number of studies examined. The more studies or subjects examined the greater the probability that the statistic will be significant (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2011). The contact hypothesis was supported as the effect size indicates that subjects scores on measures of prejudice decreased as contact was implemented. Multiple additional tests indicated that the finding did not result from areas of bias such as publication biases, and the more the studies were controlled the more robust the mean effects were. The effects of contact appeared to generalize to the entire outgroup and contact settings. Pettigrew and Tropp also observed similar patterns of effectiveness for the contact hypothesis for ethnic targets and samples with other types of targets (e.g., obese, short, gender, etc.) suggesting that Allport's contact theory can be extended to groups other than racial groups.
Another interesting finding was that contact was significantly associated with reduced prejudice even when Allport's four pre-requisite conditions were not met (although the reduction of prejudice was greater if they were). Pettigrew and Tropp purport that these four…