Character  &  Context

New Directions in Intergroup Contact

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By Tessa Thwaites

In our extremely diverse world, contact between different groups – be they differences in gender identity, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation – is increasingly frequent. In these situations of intergroup interactions, we are faced with a choice: we can react with anxiety and hostility and enact segregation; or we can react with understanding and tolerance and promote positive intergroup contact.

From a long history of research motivated by Gordon Allport’s Contact Hypothesis, we know that positive intergroup contact plays a pivotal role in reducing negative prejudices. However, a number of scholars have extended our understanding of the plethora of positive benefits resulting from contact in psychological phenomena ranging from the preparatory attention biases to face-perception and categorization processes to fear generalization and reversal learning.

To begin her session at SPSP’s Annual Convention “New Directions in Intergroup Contact: Behavioral and Neuroscientific Investigations of Attention, Categorization, Evaluation and Learning,” Cheryl Dickter from the College of William and Mary shared evidence that intergroup contact reduced selective attention biases to outgroup faces. That is, individuals who reported having a greater proportion of interracial friendships showed attenuated bias on a dot-probe task to other-race faces. Interestingly, these results held across multiple intergroup contexts, including sexual orientation minorities (Lesbian and Gay), and other racial groups (Asian). In other words, close relationship contact reduces our biases in what we automatically and reflexively attend to.

Once we pass these selective attentional biases, however, we may still be faced with biased face perception and categorization. For instance, we may perceive all outgroup faces as untrustworthy, or more anxiety-provoking. Using a novel implicit measurement of face categorization (computer-mouse tracking), Jon Freeman from New York University found that increased reports of interracial contact attenuated the implicit conflict in face categorization, which, in turn, attenuated the perceived untrustworthiness of these faces. In a similar manner, Tianyi Li from the University of Chicago, reported that increased childhood experiences of contact enabled reductions in outgroup anxiety (indexed by amygdala reactivity) following familiarization with outgroup faces. In other words, past experiences of interracial contact decreased the biases in intergroup anxiety. Together, these studies demonstrate the benefits of contact on reducing implicit and even neurological biases in the rapid perception and categorization of other-race faces.

Finally, having categorized and perceived outgroup individuals, we may still be biased in our ability for reversal learning (the ability to un-learn associations), as well as in our generalization of learning (the extension of associations to novel stimuli).

In line with previous research, Jennifer Kubota of the University of Chicago found that White participants only generalized their fear learning for novel outgroup members, but not for novel ingroup members. However, as may be anticipated from the aforementioned breadth of positive benefits of contact, Kubota and colleagues also found that the extent of the generalization was moderated by the participants’ self-reported interracial contact. Individuals with a greater history of contact had lower biases in fear generalization.

In sum, these researchers have helped to illuminate the beneficial outcomes of past positive contact on reducing biases in fundamental psychological processes ranging from initial selective attention to rapid face processing to generalized learning. Although questions remain regarding whether all these beneficial effects reflect race-specific associations or whether they may be generalizable to other groups, the overall implications of the findings are profound for our understanding of how to navigate and promote the increasing diversity of our world. 


Tessa Thwaites, Columbia College Class of 2016, Columbia University

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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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