Human beings everywhere form groups, and any given person may be a member of many different groups. Social psychologists have long studied the behavior of “ingroups” and “outgroups.” Wikipedia’s definitions are helpful here: “[A]n ingroup is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. By contrast, an outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify.” Of course, one person’s outgroup is another person’s ingroup.

When studying groups, social psychologists also distinguish between intragroup and intergroup behavior. One might look at how leaders emerge in a group (intragroup behavior) or they might look at how people in one group relate to people in another group (intergroup behavior). One pressing question of intergroup behavior has received more than 70 years study, and that is what happens when members of an ingroup have a biased view of members of an outgroup. Such conditions occur often in race and ethnic relations. Frequently the groups are in conflict with one another. How then can intergroup bias be reduced, and conflict ameliorated?

One answer is through bringing members of each group into meaningful contact with each other. A recent article has reviewed the body of research over the past twenty years exploring the “contact hypothesis.” This hypothesis, that intergroup contact can reduce bias, was first explored in a comprehensive way in the 1950s by Gordon Allport, who in 1954 wrote the highly influential book, The Nature of Prejudice. Although intergroup contact in general was often helpful in reducing bias, Allport identified four conditions making contact more likely to succeed: (a) equal status within the contact situation; (b) intergroup cooperation; (c) common goals; and (d) support of authorities, law, or custom.

The contact hypothesis, in its broad form, has been repeatedly confirmed. The reviewers, referring to an older review article, note that “[a]cross 713 independent samples from 515 studies, intergroup contact significantly improved outgroup attitudes.” The focus has shifted now to exploring and expanding the understanding of why and how intergroup contact helps reduce bias. The reviewers summarize several recent findings.

Contact does not have to be face to face. At least four other types of contact can help reduce bias:

  • Extended contact: If you know a member of your group has a “close, positive relationship” with the member of an outgroup, this can reduce intergroup bias.
  • Vicarious contact: “Observing the actions of another person” with whom you identify on TV or in other media can shape your impression of outgroup members.
  • Imagined contact: If people are guided in imagining a positive contact experience, this can reduce their level of bias.
  • Virtual contact: Although the effects are not as strong as with other means of contact, “computer-mediated communication” also has an impact.

Reducing group-based anxiety about contact is important, even more so than enhancing knowledge about the other group. Encouraging empathy and perspective taking are also important.

Groups develop norms for intergroup behavior, and these norms can be modified. So, for instance “learning that an ingroup member has positive outgroup contact communicates that both the ingroup and the outgroup have more inclusive norms than originally thought.” Repeated positive contact with a member of an outgroup can also lead one to begin to incorporate the outgroup into one’s self-concept.

Whether one views another as a member of an outgroup is a matter of what social psychologists call social categorization. How we categorize another can be changed. For instance, if we begin to see a member of an outgroup as an individual, our attitudes toward that person may change and we may see their identity as an outgroup member as less important (decategorization). However, because we see the outgroup as less meaningful to how we view the person in question our favorable impression of the outgroup member may not lead to a more favorable impression to the outgroup in general.

The reviewers describe recategorization, another approach:

“[P]ositive intergroup contact, particularly when it involves cooperative interaction or emphasizes shared goals or overlapping identities, can produce recategorization. Recategorization changes the conceptual representations of the different groups from an “us” versus “them” orientation to a more inclusive “we,” which redirects the forces of ingroup favoritism to promote more positive orientations toward others formerly perceived as members of an outgroup.”

If one has positive contact with an outgroup member who is viewed as not typical of the outgroup, then contact has less of an impact on attitudes toward the outgroup in general.

The quality of contact (how favorable it is) has a greater impact than the quantity when talking about explicit bias. But people with more contact experiences tend to have less implicit bias attitudes. The effect of positive group contact becomes stronger over time as the initial stress and intergroup anxiety present during early encounters begins to diminish.

Whether one is a member of the majority group or a member of a minority group has an effect:

In intergroup interactions, members of majority groups seek to be liked and affirmed as moral by members of the minority group, whereas minority-group members are motivated to satisfy needs for respect and empowerment …. As a consequence, majority-group members tend to emphasize commonalities to create more harmonious interactions and reduce the likelihood of being perceived in negative ways, whereas minority-group members are motivated to address not only similarities, but also group-based differences that validate their unique qualities and experiences.

The reviewers point out that much of the research on bias-reduction has focused on majority group members. Furthermore, the optimal conditions for bias reduction identified by Allport, such as developing common goals, may speak to the needs of majority members more than minority members. They caution that “[t]o achieve truly constructive intergroup relations, it is important that intergroup exchanges meet the psychological needs of both majority- and minority-group members.”

Dovidio, J. F., Love, A., Schellhaas, F. M. H., & Hewstone, M. (2017). Reducing intergroup bias through intergroup contact: Twenty years of progress and future directions. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 20(5).