Contact Hypothesis Definition
The contact hypothesis lies at the center of social psychological research on prejudice reduction. The effort to understand if contact between groups would facilitate intergroup relations was triggered after World War II by the human relations movement. In its simplest form, the contact hypothesis proposes that contact between individuals of different groups will improve relations between them. Over the years since the introduction of the contact hypothesis by Gordon Allport, a long list of optimal conditions to yield improved relations has been forwarded. However, most of the empirical findings from studies focusing on the contact hypothesis suggest that the optimal conditions can be narrowed down to four essential factors.
Essential Conditions of the Contact Hypothesis
One essential factor in order for contact to facilitate harmonious intergroup relations is that the different groups must be of equal status within the situation. Oftentimes prejudiced beliefs consist of stereotypes that outgroup members are inferior to ingroup members in their ability to perform different tasks. For example, Whites believe that Blacks are less intelligent and thus are unable to perform well on academic tasks. If contact between Whites and Blacks involves an unequal-status situation, with the White person in the dominant role and the Black person in the subordinate role, then the existing prejudiced beliefs are likely to be reinforced. By contrast, if both Whites and Blacks are treated as equals, then individuals are seen outside of their normal status group, allowing for prejudiced beliefs to be disconfirmed. A second essential factor is that the contact must have acquaintance potential, suggesting that the contact should occur frequently and be close enough to permit the development of meaningful relationships between individuals of the different groups. A third essential factor of the contact hypothesis is that there must be active attainment of a common goal that involves intergroup cooperation without competition. That is, individuals of the different groups must have a superordinate goal that cannot be achieved without the full cooperation of both groups. Finally, the fourth essential condition necessary for contact to be successful is that there must be explicit, unambiguous support for intergroup contact from authorities. The support fosters social norms of tolerance and acceptance of cultural diversity.
Thus, according to the contact hypothesis, it is not enough to merely bring people of different groups together. In fact, research shows that such an approach may actually worsen the tension between the groups. It is contact that involves the essential four conditions (described in the previous paragraph) that will facilitate positive intergroup relations.
Empirical Evidence for Contact Hypothesis
The contact hypothesis has sparked extensive research for over 50 years. Empirical support that contact under optimal conditions reduces prejudice and fosters intergroup harmony has been found using various methodologies, including laboratory studies, field studies, and survey studies. An extensive analysis of studies conducted on the contact hypothesis revealed that 94% of more than 500 studies found that increased intergroup contact predicted decreased prejudice. These studies focused on contact between various social groups, including contact between Whites and racial/ethnic minorities, heterosexual and gays/ lesbians, non-mentally ill and mentally ill individuals, and younger adults and elderly individuals.
Applications of the Contact Hypothesis
Increasing contact between members of different groups has been the basis of many policy decisions advocating racial integration in contexts such as schools, housing, workplaces, and the military. In addition, the contact hypothesis has been used to create programs to improve race relations.
The contact hypothesis influenced the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s (Brown v. Board of Education) decision to desegregate schools. The contact hypothesis was used to show that desegregation would increase the self-esteem of racial minorities and decrease the prejudice of Whites. Unfortunately, studies of the effects of school desegregation have not always produced encouraging findings. Some studies conducted during and immediately following the court’s decision showed that desegregation actually increased Whites’ prejudice toward Blacks and had little effect on the self-esteem of Black children. Several reasons for these findings is that interracial contact in desegregated schools was not always equal nor was it implemented with full social support, two essential conditions for improving inter-group relations.
In addition to helping integrate American’s education system, the contact hypothesis was used in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding the use of race as a criterion in college admission. The research presented in this case, which was based on the contact hypothesis, suggested that interracial contact on college campuses fosters tolerance and is intellectually stimulating.
The contact hypothesis has been used in creating cooperative learning programs to improve intergroup relations. The most famous type of cooperative learning program is referred to as the jigsaw classroom method. The jigsaw classroom refers to a technique that creates a classroom atmosphere in which students of different racial and ethnic groups are placed in pursuit of a common goal. Specifically, students are placed in diverse six-person learning groups. The lesson is divided into six segments, and each student is assigned one segment of the lesson. In essence, each student holds, so to speak, one piece of the jigsaw. To complete the entire lesson, the students must rely on the knowledge of the other individuals in their group, thereby facilitating the interdependence that is needed to improve intergroup relations. In the jigsaw classroom, students are working cooperatively toward a common goal in a context where there is implicit institutional support given by the teacher. Students in jigsaw classrooms, compared to those in traditional classrooms, show decreased prejudice and stereotyping, and minority students show an increase in self-esteem. Moreover, students in jigsaw classrooms show a genuine display of integration even outside of the classroom, such as on the playground, by their willingness to interact with members outside of their racial and ethnic group.
- Allport, G. (1979). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Perseus Books. (Original work published 1954)
- Pettigrew, T. F. (1998). Integroup contact theory. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 65-85.