Contact hypothesis

Contact hypothesis

In criminology, psychology, and sociology, the contact hypothesis has been described as one of the best ways to improve relations among groups that are experiencing conflict.[1][2] Gordon W. Allport (1954) is often credited with the development of the Contact Hypothesis, also known as Intergroup Contact Theory. The premise of Allport's theory states that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.[3] If one has the opportunity to communicate with others, they are able to understand and appreciate different points of views involving their way of life. As a result of new appreciation and understanding, prejudice should diminish.[4] Issues of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are commonly occurring issues between rival groups. Allport's proposal was that properly managed contact between the groups should reduce these problems and lead to better interactions.

In order for this to occur, these 4 criteria must be present:

  • Equal Status, both groups taken into an equal status relationship,
  • Common Goals, both groups work on a problem/task and share this as a common goal, sometimes called a superordinate goal,
  • Acquaintance Potential, the opportunity of group members to get to know each other as friends, and not merely as actors playing out social roles or as representatives of their social groups; the familiarity between group members involving the task or situation at hand
  • Support of authorities, law or customs, some authority that both groups acknowledge and define social norms that support the contact and interactions between the groups and members.

The reduction of prejudice through intergroup contact is best explained as the reconceptualization of group categories. Gordon Allport (1954) claims that prejudice is a direct result of generalizations and over-simplifications made about an entire group of people based on incomplete or mistaken information. The basic rationale is that prejudice may be reduced as one learns more about a category of people.[3] Rothbart and John (1985) describe belief change through contact as "an example of the general cognitive process by which attributes of category members modify category attributes" (p. 82).[5] An individual's beliefs can be modified by that person coming into contact with a culturally distinct category member and subsequently modifying or elaborating the beliefs about the category as a whole.

A study conducted by Rothbart and John (1985) found that the Contact Hypothesis is an effective technique for reducing prejudice and stereotyping if three criterion are met.[5]

  1. The minority group members behavior is not consistent with their stereotype
  2. Contact between group members occurs often and in a variety of social contexts
  3. The minority members are perceived as typical of their cultural group



Most research on the contact hypothesis resulted from World War II. Due to a shortage of combat troops, General Dwight D. Eisenhower allowed Black soldiers assigned in Europe at that time the option to volunteer for combat duty. The Army was concerned with the troop morale involving White soldiers who would possibly share the battlefield or be integrated into platoons with the Black soldiers. The results of a survey at that time were very polarized. Sixty-two percent of segregated units involving White soldiers said they would dislike the idea of serving in semi-integrated units. White soldiers who were currently serving within semi-integrated units reported only 7% dissatisfaction. This supports the notion that intergroup contact, under the right conditions, can reduce prejudice. Other studies have claimed that contact hypothesis is a very simple and optimistic and that contact would most likely gravitate toward hostility rather than friendship if two competitive parties were involved. If groups with a negative outlook were brought together, it would lead to increases of negative attitudes rather than positive.[6]

Indirect Intergroup Contact

One of the most important advancements in research on intergroup contact is the growing evidence of a number of indirect intergroup contact strategies as means to improve relations between social groups.[7] Indirect intergroup contact includes (a) extended contact: learning that an ingroup member is friends with an outgroup member,[8] (b) vicarious contact: observing an ingroup member interact with an outgroup member,[9] (c) imagined contact: imagining oneself interacting with an outgroup member,[10] and (d) parasocial contact: interacting with an outgroup member through the media.[11]

Extended Contact Hypothesis

The 'extended contact hypothesis,' put forward by Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, and Ropp (1997),[8] holds that knowing that a member of one’s own group has a close relationship with an member of an outgroup can lead to more positive attitudes towards that outgroup.

Parasocial Contact Hypothesis

Schiappa, Gregg and Hewes proposed a communication analogue to Allport's (1954) Contact Hypothesis named the Parasocial Contact Hypothesis. Two years after the release of Gordon Allport's novel, The Nature of Prejudice, Horton and Wohl (1956) pushed for studying what they referred to as "para-social" interaction: "One of the most striking characteristics of the new mass media including radio, television and the movies is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationships with the performer"(p 215).[12] The illusion of a face to face interaction via the mass media is under consideration for scholars due to its implication to change, shape and/or reinforce stereotypes and prejudices. The theory works under the assumption that people cognitively process mass mediated interactions in a matter similar to interpersonal interactions. Therefore, these individuals should benefit from these mediated intercultural interactions (Parasocial contact) in a similar fashion to face to face interactions. Research studies have concluded that parasocial contact is associated with lower levels of prejudice and changes in beliefs about the attributes of minority group categories.[11] A complementary approach to the parasocial contact hypothesis is provided by Ortiz & Harwood[13] who suggest that observing intergroup interaction in the media (e.g., watching a gay and straight character interact on TV) can be particularly powerful in influencing attitudes. Members of groups can model effective intergroup interaction by observing such interaction in the media.[9]

Contact via Other Media

In addition to work on the parasocial contact hypothesis, additional research has examined the effects of exposure to characters in children's literature,[14] for instance, using Wright et al.'s [8] extended contact idea. Other work has examined whether online interaction has similar effects as direct face-to-face interaction.[15] Some attempts have been made to provide integrated frameworks for examining intergroup contact across a wide variety of mediated contexts and discussing how the process might differ from direct face-to-face contact[16]

Contact Hypothesis and Homosexuality

The Contact Hypothesis has proven to be highly effective in alleviating prejudice directed toward homosexuals. Applying the Contact Hypothesis to heterosexuals and homosexuals, Herek (1987) found that college students who had pleasant interactions with a homosexual tend to generalize from that experience and accept homosexuals as a group.[17] Herek and Glunt's (1993) national study of interpersonal contact and heterosexuals' attitudes toward gay men found that increased contact "predicted attitudes toward gay men better than did any other demographic or social psychological variable" (p. 239); such variables included gender, race, age, education, geographic residence, marital status, number of children, religion and political ideology.[18] Herek and Capitanio (1996) found that contact experiences with two or three homosexuals are associated with more favorable attitudes than are contact experiences with only one individual.[19]


Competitions are the reasons behind rivalries and fights. Many sports teams, sororities, fraternities, and businesses use the contact hypothesis technique. Having the two groups in competitions do something that requires the groups to work together helps break the rivalries and fights. The groups are given a project to complete, like raising money for a charity or hosting an event. The two groups must be given something that one group cannot complete by itself. This will allow the groups to share a common goal and have equal status and cooperation. The most commonly seen version of contact hypothesis is in the juvenile system. Petty criminals perform community service together to decrease the amount of fights and competition in the system. This also helps the community and the individuals that might have been hurt by the petty criminal.

Once this task is complete it is hypothesized that the groups will find cohesion. The Contact Hypothesis (Allport, 1954), has influenced a broad application of this concept, attributing to the racial desegregation of schools and research on reducing racial, homosexual, age and AIDS based prejudices.

Brown, Brown, Jackson, Sellers, & Manuel (2003) studied predominantly White colleges with athlete teams. There were two expected factors in determining the reaction to Black teammates: the amount of contact with minority teammates and whether the athletes played an individual or team sport. Team sports (soccer, basketball), as opposed to individual sports (track, swimming), require teamwork and cooperation to win. Results from the comparative study showed that team sports more fully meet the conditions that reduce prejudice through intergroup contact. In these conditions, results show that the attitude of those in team sports became more positive as intergroup contact increased while the attitudes of those in individual sports were unaffected by intergroup contact.[20]


  1. ^ Brown, R., & Hewstone, M. (2005). An integrative theory of intergroup contact. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 37,pp. 255–343). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
  2. ^ Wright, S. C. (2009). Cross-group contact effects. In S. Otten, T. Kessler & K. Sassenberg (Eds.), Intergroup relations: The role of emotion and motivation (pp. 262–283). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  3. ^ a b Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books
  4. ^ Whitley, B.E., & Kite, M.E. (2010). The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  5. ^ a b Rothbart, M., & John, O. P. (1985) Social categorization and behavioral episodes: A cognitive analysis of the effects of intergroup contact. Journal of Social Issues, 41, 81–104
  6. ^ Amir, Y. (1976). The role of intergroup contact in the change of prejudice and ethnic relations. In P.A. Katz (Ed.), Towards the elimination of racism (pp. 245-308).New York: Pergamon.
  7. ^ Dovidio, J. F., Eller, A., & Hewstone, M. (2011). Improving intergroup relations through direct, extended and other forms of indirect contact. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 147-160
  8. ^ a b c Wright, S. C., Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., & Ropp, S. A. (1997). The extended contact effect: Knowledge of cross-group friendships and preju¬dice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 73–90
  9. ^ a b Mazziotta, A., Mummendey, A. & Wright, C. S. (2011). Vicarious intergroup contact effects: Applying social-cognitive theory to intergroup contact research. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 255-274.
  10. ^ Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2009). Can imagined inter¬actions produce positive perceptions? Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. American Psychologist, 64(4), 231–240.
  11. ^ a b Schiappa, E., Gregg, P., & Hewes, D. (2005) The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis Communication Monographs, 72, 92-115
  12. ^ Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956) Mass communication and para-social interaction. Psychiatry, 19, 215–229.
  13. ^ Ortiz, M., & Harwood, J. (2007). A social cognitive approach to intergroup relationships on television. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 51, 615-631.
  14. ^ Cameron, L., & Rutland, A. (2006). Extended contact through story reading in school: Reducing children's prejudice toward the disabled. Journal of Social Issues, 62, 469-488.
  15. ^ Walther, J. B. (2009). Computer-mediated communication and virtual groups: Applications to interethnic conflict. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 37, 225-238.
  16. ^ Harwood, J. (2010). The contact space: A novel framework for intergroup contact research. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29, 147-177. doi: 10.1177/0261927X09359520
  17. ^ Herek, G. M. (1987) The instrumentality of attitudes: Toward a neofunctional theory. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 99–114.
  18. ^ Herek, G. M., & Glunt, E. K. (1993). Interpersonal contact and heterosexuals’ attitudes toward gay men: Results from a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 30, 239–244.
  19. ^ Herek, G. M., & Capitanio, J. P. (1996) “Some of my best friends”: Intergroup contact, concealable stigma, and heterosexuals’ attitudes toward gay men and lesbians Personality. Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 412–424
  20. ^ Brown, K.T, Brown, T.N., Jackson, J.S., Sellers, R.M., & Manuel, W.J. (2003). Teammates on and off the field? Contact with Black teammates and the racial attitudes of Whit student athletes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33, 1379-1403.

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