One night in 1983, Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, was playing with a country band in an all-white Maryland bar. During a break between sets, a white man started chatting with him. "In the course of our conversation, he said it was the first time he'd had a drink with a black man. I asked why. He revealed he was a member of the KKK," Davis recalls.
Surprisingly, Davis's first reaction wasn't fear, but curiosity. He had grown up in a military family and spent much of his youth abroad. He attended international schools with people of all races, nationalities and religions. It wasn't until he was 10, living in Massachusetts, that he experienced racism for the first time when he was pelted by bottles. Since that grim introduction, he'd been undertaking a quiet quest to answer a simple question: "How can you hate me if you don't even know me?"
Talking to the man in the bar, Davis realized, "That was the perfect time to get the answer to my question." After befriending Davis, the man eventually renounced his Klan membership. In the years since, Davis has sat down with more than 100 other Klan members and leaders, bonding with them over shared interests in music or family. He estimates that perhaps two-thirds of them have ultimately left the KKK. "I never set out to convert anybody. Initially I didn't think they could be changed. I just wanted the answer to my question," he says.
Davis's experience is a living illustration of contact theory in action. Formally proposed by psychologist Gordon Allport, PhD, in the 1950s, the theory states that contact between two groups can promote tolerance under certain conditions, such as having common goals. "If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy, you'll find you have something in common," Davis says. "If you nurture those commonalities, your skin color or who you worship matters less and less. You begin to forge a relationship. If you nurture the relationship, you begin to forge a friendship."
Identifying ways to counter hate and unite people has been given new urgency at a time when hate groups are on the rise. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), over the last two decades in the United States there has been a sharp rise in hate groups, from 457 in 1999 to 917 this year. That spike dipped a little beginning in 2011, but it began to rise sharply again in 2015—a trend the SPLC attributes to a presidential campaign that gave voice to anti-immigrant sentiments and other divisive rhetoric.
Of course, hate is not a new problem, as history has proven time and again. It's clear, though, that certain social and environmental factors can fan the flames of hostility. Social psychology research can help identify those factors and suggest possible ways to douse the flames.
At its essence, prejudice is about believing some groups have more worth or value than others. Hostility toward a particular social group develops when that group becomes devalued compared to others, explains Ervin Staub, PhD, a professor of psychology, emeritus, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and founding director of the university's PhD concentration in the psychology of peace and violence. The marginalized group might be singled out because of factors such as race, religion or socioeconomic status, he says. Whatever the reason, "they become devalued, and it becomes part of the culture."
Certain conditions can cause prejudice and intergroup hostility to spike. A sluggish economy, for instance, can create anxiety that leads people to believe they have to compete for their fair share. In the United States, for instance, the fear that immigrants will take "American" jobs is an oft-repeated refrain, despite evidence that shows the economic effects of immigration are positive overall (The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration, 2017).
Whether it's racial tension in the United States or ethnic clashes around the globe, intergroup conflict generally stems from a sense of threat, says Linda R. Tropp, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Sometimes those threats are material, such as access to jobs or other resources. Often, though, the threats are more symbolic in nature.
Not everyone responds to those threats in the same way. At one end of the spectrum are people who are extremely tolerant of others' differences, and at the other are people who are deeply prejudiced. "There are people who are extreme bigots and always will be. There's not a lot you can do but contain them," notes Susan Fiske, PhD, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University who studies social cognition.
But many people exist somewhere in the murky middle. For those people, social norms are extremely important, Fiske adds. "Attitudes follow norms, and there are a lot of people whose attitudes are malleable. If we have leadership that isn't promoting intergroup tolerance, it sets the norms for the rest of society," she says.
Chris S. Crandall, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas, studies those social standards. He's found that social norms can shift in response to social and cultural phenomena. In research being prepared for publication, he and his colleagues surveyed supporters of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the days before the 2016 presidential election. Half of the participants were asked to rate their personal feelings toward various social and ethnic groups. The other half assessed how acceptable it was to say negative things about the members of those groups.
After the election, Crandall's team re-interviewed the participants. People's personal feelings about different groups hadn't changed after the election, regardless of whom they voted for. But supporters of both candidates reported it was more acceptable to speak negatively about Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, overweight people and people with disabilities—groups that Trump had disparaged during the campaign. In addition, participants reported no changes in the perceived acceptability of speaking negatively about groups that Trump had not disparaged, including Canadians, alcoholics and members of the National Rifle Association, Crandall explains.
"People work hard to suppress their own prejudices," Crandall says. "What Trump's campaign has done is change a lot of people's sense of what is OK to say. The dam was holding back the water, but he's opened up the spillway."
Up close and personal
Because attitudes and norms go hand in hand, shoring up that broken dam could shift societal attitudes toward a more tolerant worldview, Crandall says. If people who behave in a bigoted way go to jail, lose their jobs and friends, or suffer other negative consequences, it sends a message that such sentiments aren't socially acceptable.
While social norms can shift opinion, interacting with members of other groups can also be an effective strategy. In his original description of contact theory, Allport proposed that contact between groups can reduce prejudice when four optimal conditions are present: equal status between the groups, sharing common goals, cooperation with one another and support from institutional authorities.
In recent years, psychologists have concluded that Allport's four conditions aren't absolutely required for intergroup acceptance. But they definitely help. One feature that is particularly important: meaningful connection. Cooperating on a work project or volunteer committee will likely go further toward reducing prejudice than multiple brief interactions with the grocery store cashier.
"Contact helps reduce feelings of anxiety and threat, and enhances one's capacity for empathy," says Tropp. "When we think about trying to dismantle the building blocks of hate, we have to have meaningful engagement across group lines."
Tropp, along with Thomas Pettigrew, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 515 studies examining the effects of intergroup contact. They found contact typically reduces prejudice and increases trust and forgiveness between groups, especially when some or all of Allport's conditions are met. Contact effects aren't limited to racial or ethnic groups, they found. Meaningful contact also reduces prejudice toward people in same-sex relationships, those with disabilities and those who have mental illness (International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2011).
Davis has witnessed the effects of meaningful contact time and again. "Talking one on one, you see the humanity in [the other person]. You realize you want the same things for your family as they want for theirs, and it becomes hard to hate that person across the table from you," he says.
Contact with a member of another group doesn't only change the way people feel about that individual. It can also help shift attitudes more broadly. In a study that followed white university students, for example, Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, PhD, and Alfred DeMans at Indiana University at Bloomington, found that when people had more interracial friendships, their endorsement of affirmative action policies increased more rapidly over a four-year period. College students who had grown up in more racially diverse neighborhoods were also more accepting of affirmative action (Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2015).
In-person contact isn't the only route to understanding, however. A review by German researchers Gunnar Lemmer, PhD, and Ulrich Wagner, PhD, concluded that interventions based on virtual contact could be as effective as face-to-face interventions (European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2015).
In one example of virtual contact, Joseph Walther, PhD, at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and colleagues showed that when Israeli Jews and Muslims interacted during an online course on educational technology, their prejudice toward the opposite group decreased (Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 52, No. 1, 2015).
One important benefit of interacting with people from other social groups might be that it allows people to see others as individuals, not stereotypes. And research suggests that when people recognize that not all black people or all Muslims are the same, they are less prejudiced toward those groups. In a series of experiments, Markus Brauer, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Wisconsin, and colleagues tested posters that featured Arab people with different ages, hairstyles and clothing styles and with captions that highlighted their different personality traits (such as "optimist" or "stingy"). The people who had been exposed to the posters viewed Arab people more positively and were less prejudiced against them compared with people who viewed no poster or a control poster (Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2013).
"In any group, there are people who are funny and boring, hardworking and lazy, honest and dishonest," Brauer says. "Ethnicity isn't a great predictor of how someone behaves, and we should promote the notion that it's hard to give them all the same label."
To promote tolerance more widely, Brauer urges his colleagues to think creatively. People who aren't receptive to diversity education, for example, might be more easily swayed by diversity in their entertainment. Betsy Levy Paluck, PhD, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, used educational radio programs to promote reconciliation and prevent new violence after the conflict in Rwanda (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 96, No. 3, 2009).
Recently, Brauer showed the strategy can work in the United States. His participants either watched a sitcom featuring an all-white cast or one that showed diverse yet relatable Muslim characters. Those who watched the diverse sitcom had lower scores of implicit and explicit bias against Muslims. That difference was still evident four weeks after they'd watched the show (Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, published online, 2017).
"If it's done right, shows with inclusive messages embedded in them can produce societal shifts," Brauer says.
Writers of TV dramas frequently solicit advice about medicine and public health messages from researchers and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he notes. But psychologists aren't yet out there helping writers include social science messages for good. "Hollywood writers often have good intentions but don't know how to do it," he says.
Prejudice is normal, Crandall adds, but it's not immutable. "Most of us have connections to people that we can influence," he says. "We have a moral duty to try."
Murrar, S., Gavac, S., & Brauer, M. Social Psychology: How Other People Influence Our Thoughts and Actions
Summers, R. (Ed.), 2017
Reflections on Prejudice and Intergroup Relations
Molina, E.E., Tropp, L.R., & Goode, C. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2016
Status, Power and Intergroup Relations: The Personal Is the Societal
Fiske, S.T., et al. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2016
Recent Advances in Intergroup Contact Theory
Pettigrew, T.F., et al. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 2011
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