Contact Hypothesis (Allport)

Contact Hypothesis - toolshero

This article explains the Contact Hypothesis in a practical way. After reading this article, you will understand the basis of this powerful psychology tool.

What is the Contact Hypothesis?

The contact hypothesis is a psychology theory suggesting that prejudice and conflict between groups can be reduced by allowing members of those groups to interact with one another. This notion is also called intra-group contact. Prejudice and conflict usually arise between majority and minority group members.

The background to the contact hypothesis

Social psychologist Gordon Allport is credited with conducting the first studies on intergroup contact. Allport is also known for this research in the field of personalities. After the Second World War, social scientists and policymakers concentrated mainly on interracial contact. Allport brought these studies together in his study of intergroup contact.

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In 1954, Allport published his first hypothesis concerning intergroup contact. The main premise of his article stated that intergroup contact was one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between groups.

Allport claimed that contact management could reduce problems with stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, leading to better and more worthwhile interaction between two or more groups. Over the years since Allport’s original article, the hypothesis has been expanded by social scientists and used for research into reducing prejudice relating to racism, disability, women and LGBTQ + people. Empirical research into intergroup contact is still ongoing today.

Prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination

The term “prejudice” is used to refer to a preconceived, negative view of another person, based on perceived qualities such as political affiliation, skin colour, faith, gender, disability, religion, sexuality, language, height, education, and more.

Prejudice can also refer to an unfounded belief, or to pigeonhole people or groups. Gordon Allport, the originator of the contact hypothesis, defined prejudice as a feeling, positive or negative, prior to actual experience, that is not based on fact.

Stereotypes, as defined in the contact hypothesis, are generalisations about groups of people. Stereotypes are often based on sexual orientation, religion, race, or age. Stereotypes can be positive, but are usually negative. Either way, a stereotype is a generalisation that does not take into account differences at the individual level.

Prejudice and stereotypes concern biased views regarding others, but discrimination consists of targeted action against individuals or groups based on race, religion, gender or other identifying features. Discrimination takes many forms, from pay gaps and glass ceilings to unfair housing policies.

In recent years, more and more new legislation and regulations have been introduced, designed to tackle discrimination in, for example, the workplace. It is not however possible to eliminate discrimination through legislation. Discrimination is a complex issue relating to the justice, education and political systems in a society.

Conditions for intergroup contact to reduce prejudice

Gordon Allport claimed that prejudice and conflict between groups can be reduced by having equal status contact between groups in pursuit of common goals. This effect is even greater when contact is officially sanctioned.

This can be achieved through legislation, but also through local customs and practice. In other words, there are four conditions under which prejudice can be reduced. These are:

Equal status

Both groups taking part in the contact must play equal roles in the relationship. The members of each group should have similar backgrounds, qualities and other features. Differences in academic background, prosperity or experience should be kept to a minimum.

Common goals

Both groups should seek to serve a higher purpose through the relationship and working together. This is a goal which can only be achieved when the two groups join forces and work together on common initiatives.

Working together

Both groups should work together to achieve their common goals, rather than in competition.

Support from the authorities through legislation

Both groups should recognise a single authority, to support contact and collaborative interaction between groups. This contact should be helpful, considerate, and foster the right attitude towards one another.

Examples of the contact hypothesis

The effect of greater contact between members of disparate groups has been the basis of many policy decisions advocating racial integration in settings such as schools, housing, workplaces and the military.

The contact hypothesis in the desegregation of education

An example of this is a 1954 landmark court decision by the US Supreme Court. The decision brought about the desegregation of schools. In this ruling, the contact hypothesis was used to demonstrate that this would increase self-esteem among racial minorities and respect between groups in general.

Studies into the implications of this decision in subsequent years did not always yield positive results. There have been studies showing that prejudice was actually reinforced and that self-esteem did not improve among minorities. The reason for this has already been set out above.

Contact between groups in schools, for example, was not always equal, nor did it take place with social supervision. These are two essential requirements or conditions for improving relationships between disparate groups.

The contact hypothesis in developing education strategies

The contact hypothesis has also proved invaluable in developing cooperative education strategies. The best known of these is the jigsaw classroom technique. This technique involves creating a particular classroom setting where students from various racial backgrounds are brought together in pursuit of a common goal.

In practice this means that students are placed in study groups of 6. The lesson is split into six elements, and each student is assigned one part of those six. That means that each student actually represents one piece in that jigsaw.

For the lesson to succeed, students need to trust one another based on their knowledge. This increases interdependence within the group, which is necessary for improving relationships between people.

Reducing prejudice

Besides it being very important to know how prejudice arises, studies on prejudice also focus on the potential to reduce prejudice. One technique widely believed to be highly effective is training people to become more empathetic towards members of other groups.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes makes it easier to think about what you would do in a similar situation.

Other techniques and methods used to reduce prejudice are:

  • Contact with members of other groups
  • Making others aware of the inconsistencies in their beliefs and values
  • Legislation and regulations which promote fair and equal treatment of people in minority groups
  • Creating public support and awareness

Implication of prejudice and discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination and prejudice can lead to wellbeing issues and substantial financial loss to the organisation, along with a sharp fall in employee and company morale. According to the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults face prejudice or discrimination at some time.

For some this happens at work; others face it as part of everyday life in society. Most people are aware of the negative effects this can have on employees, but discrimination and prejudice going unchecked can also have serious consequences.

Firstly, treating people unfairly can contribute to increased stress levels. This in turn leads to more wellbeing issues for those who are personally harmed or attacked. When someone is constantly worrying about discrimination or religion, he or she is forced to think about that thing all day long. Too much stress reduces sleep quality and suppresses appetite. When this becomes the norm for someone, they are going to feel chronically ill or down.

Prejudice also has a negative effect on the company in general. Companies may even suffer financial loss as a consequence. Employees who feel ill or down because of social issues are more likely to resign. The company then incurs substantial costs training new people.

Another obvious negative outcome for organisations is employees who hate management if they feel they are not being treated fairly. This negative attitude from employees has an effect on individual employee performance and ultimately also on the performance of the organisation as a whole.

The contact hypothesis in summary

The contact hypothesis, of which the intergroup contact theory is a part, is a theory from sociology and psychology which suggests that problems such as discrimination and prejudice can be drastically reduced by having more contact with people from different social groups. This notion is also called intergroup contact. Prejudice and conflict usually arise between majority and minority group members.

The social psychologist credited for his contributions in this field is Gordon Allport. Allport brought together several studies of interracial contact after the Second World War and developed the intergroup contact theory from those. His hypothesis was published in 1954. In the decades which followed, the theory was widely used in initiatives to tackle these social problems.

Prejudice is often a negative evaluation of others based on qualities such as political affiliation, age, skin colour, height, gender or other identifying features. Stereotyping resembles prejudice, but is in fact making generalisations about groups of people.

This social failing is also based on religion, gender or other identifying features which say nothing about the group as a whole. Discrimination goes a step further than prejudice and stereotypes. Discrimination is about actually treating people in a negative way based on particular identifying features such as race or education.

Gordon Allport developed four requirements or conditions necessary for reducing prejudice through increased intergroup contact. The first is that both groups should have an equal status. The members of each group should have similar backgrounds, qualities or social status.

Differences in academic background, prosperity or experience should be kept to a minimum. The second is to have common goals. The groups should not be brought together without some purpose. As mentioned too in the example above in the jigsaw classroom section, dependence on one another is stimulating, which is a prerequisite for social equality and improved relationships. This is linked to the third condition: working together.

Working together is vital for achieving common goals. Working together reduces the likelihood that people will treat others in a negative way. The final condition is support from the authorities through legislation or other means. Both groups should recognise a single authority, to facilitate contact between groups.

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Now it is your turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of the contact hypothesis? Have you ever faced prejudice or discrimination? Had you ever heard of this theory before? Do you think eliminating discrimination and prejudice is possible? What is your view on opportunity of outcome vs opportunity of equality? Do you have any other advice or additional comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Amir, Y. (1969). Contact hypothesis in ethnic relations. Psychological bulletin, 71(5), 319.
  2. Brewer, M. B., & Miller, N. (1984). Beyond the contact hypothesis: Theoretical. Groups in contact: The psychology of desegregation, 281.
  3. Paluck, E. L., Green, S. A., & Green, D. P. (2019). The contact hypothesis re-evaluated. Behavioural Public Policy, 3(2), 129-158.
  4. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2005). Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis: Its history and influence. On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport, 262-277.

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