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Author’s Introduction

A goal shared enthusiastically amongst many social psychologists is the improvement of intergroup relations. Conflict between groups is usually related to distinct, and in many cases opposing, identities, based on (for example) ethnicity, nationality, and religion, but also gender, age, sexual orientation and political or individual preferences. Our research has developed a new intervention for improving intergroup relations based on an integration of theory and empirical work on social cognition and intergroup relations. We’ve called the technique Imagined Contact because it is based on the mental simulation of intergroup contact experiences. Collectively, our research has focused on refining and evaluating imagined contact as an effective tool for the enhancement of intergroup relations.

Our article in Social and Personality Psychology Compass provides a summary of the basic theory underlying imagined contact, a review of empirical findings to date, and a framework for developing practical applications of the intervention (in particular as a school-based intervention). We wanted to offer a teaching and learning guide for this article because we believe that the imagined contact task provides a flexible, effective, and easy-to-use tool for teachers, seminar leaders, students, and practitioners. The task can be used as a basis for encouraging more positive and open attitudes towards other groups, a way of preparing people for future intergroup encounters, a stimulus for discussions about the value in experiencing social diversity, and a way of illustrating the power of mental processes in forming and challenging attitudes about others.

Author Recommends

On mental imagery

Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001). Imagining stereotypes away: The moderation of implicit stereotypes through mental imagery. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 828–841.

The results from five studies in this paper showed that people who engaged in counter-stereotypic mental imagery (e.g., imagining a strong woman) demonstrated less implicit stereotyping compared to participants who engaged in neutral or stereotypic mental imagery, or who had not engaged in any mental imagery at all.

Garcia, S. M., Weaver, K., Moskowitz, G. B., & Darley, J. M. (2002). Crowded minds: The implicit bystander effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 843–853.

The authors of this paper proposed that imagining particular social scenarios can evoke the same mental processes (and consequences for behavior) as experiencing the real thing. Evidence from five studies showed that when people simply imagined being in the presence of others they were subsequently less inclined to engage in helping behavior – the same ‘bystander apathy’ effect that has been observed when people are actually in the physical presence of others.

Marks, D. F. (1999). Consciousness, mental imagery and action. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 567–585.

This paper reviews the literature on the function of mental imagery more generally, mostly from an experiential perspective. The author concluded that mental imagery facilitates perceptual and cognitive tasks, especially when the imagined scenario is particularly vivid.

On intergroup contact

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.

This is an up-to-date account of intergroup contact theory. The authors summarized a large number of studies that tested the effectiveness of intergroup contact for reducing prejudice. Based on the findings of these studies they argued that as well as contact that enables generalization of positive feelings from the individual to the group as a whole, future research should place more emphasis on the interpersonal aspects of contact (i.e., building cross-group friendships).

Paolini, S., Hewstone, M., Cairns, E., & Voci, A. (2004). Effects of direct and indirect cross-group friendships on judgments of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: The mediating role of anxiety-reduction mechanism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 770–786.

This paper focused on the relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and how direct and indirect cross-group friendships affected prejudice between the two groups. Using structural equation modeling, the beneficial role of cross-group friendships on prejudice-reduction was revealed, an effect that was mediated by reductions in intergroup anxiety.

Pettigrew, T. F. (1998). Intergroup contact theory. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 65–85.

This is a highly influential review of Allport’s (1954) Contact Hypothesis written by Thomas Pettigrew. The chapter addresses critical issues for the theory’s development and outlines a longitudinal intergroup contact theory. Importantly, Pettigrew argued that a distinction should be made between conditions that are essential for contact to be effective, and conditions that facilitate the positive effects of contact.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751–783.

This paper reports an extensive meta-analysis of studies carried out on intergroup contact between 1940 and 2000. The authors demonstrated that intergroup contact is significantly associated with reduced prejudice even when Allport’s pre-requisite conditions were not met (although the reduction of prejudice was greater if they were). Importantly, the authors suggested that the optimal conditions should not be regarded as mutually independent but as functioning together in order to reduce prejudice.

Tropp, L. R., & Pettigrew, T. F. (2005). Relationships between intergroup contact and prejudice between majority and minority groups. Psychological Research, 16 (12), 951–957.

This meta-analysis examined the differences in the effects of intergroup contact on majority and minority groups. According to the meta-analytic findings, the relationship between contact and prejudice was weaker among minority groups than among majority groups and favorable contact conditions did not predict stronger contact–bias relationships for minority groups.

Wright, S. C., Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., & Ropp, S. A. (1997). The extended contact effect: Knowledge of cross-group friendships and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 73–90.

This is an engaging and influential paper in which the authors introduced the concept of extended contact and explored how it can help improve intergroup relations. According to the extended contact hypothesis, knowledge that an ingroup member has an outgroup friend can help reduce bias toward the outgroup. In this paper, evidence from four studies confirmed the hypothesis. This approach has influenced the development of school-based interventions that aim to tackle prejudice and discrimination.

On imagined contact

Abrams, D., Crisp, R. J., Marques, S., Fagg, E., Bedford, L., & Provias, D. (2008). Threat inoculation: Experienced and Imagined intergenerational contact prevent stereotype threat effects on older people’s math performance. Psychology and Aging, 23, 934-939.

In this paper, the authors integrated the literature on stereotype threat with the Imagined contact paradigm. According to the findings, intergenerational contact, both actual and imagined, can reduce the negative effects of stereotype threat, partially by decreasing test-related anxiety.

Crisp, R. J. & Turner, R. N. (2009). Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions? Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. American Psychologist, 64, 231-240.

This article provides a theory-focused introduction and overview of the basic principles underlying Imagined Contact. It particularly focuses on the similarities and differences between actual, extended and imagined contact along a continuum of contact interventions. The authors discussed how understanding the nature of these similarities and differences can help determine which type of contact could be used most effectively in particular intergroup contexts.

Stathi, S., & Crisp, R. J. (2008). Imagining intergroup contact promotes projection to outgroups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 943–957.

This paper focused on examining the conditions under which imagined contact is most effective, particularly with respect to encouraging the projection of positive traits to outgroup members. The authors tested the paradigm with different populations and observed an important role for self and identity processes in the successful application of the intervention.

Turner, R. N., Crisp, R. J., & Lambert, E. (2007). imagining intergroup contact can improve intergroup attitudes. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 10, 427–441.

This was the first empirical paper to be published on imagined contact. The authors tested the imagined contact hypothesis with various populations and evidence from three studies illustrated the positive effects of imagined contact on attitudes toward the outgroup, stereotypes, and intergroup anxiety.

Online materials

This website is managed by the Applied Research Center, a group looking into racial justice through media and activism. It offers a variety of links relating to issues of racial justice news, policies, and current research, as well as access to relevant blogs and videos.

In particular:

This website provides information regarding the background of The Equalities Review, a thorough review on the causes of discrimination and equality in British society. The actual review, sponsored by the Equality Minister and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, can also be found here on PDF format.

This website is managed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It presents issues that relate to students’ academic life, such as educational practices, and domestic and global news on diversity and democracy.

This is The Guardian’s webpage with news articles on race issues from around the world.

This is a networking site where professionals discuss peace, human rights, prejudice and other social issues. Furthermore, its members have the opportunity to share relevant resources such as videos, pictures, articles, etc.

This is the United Kingdom Council for International Education’s 2006 report on the experiences of International students in UK Universities. The report summarizes the findings of a large-scale study in four chapters. One of these chapters (Chapter 3) presents the findings about the role of social contact and cross-group friendships in International students’ experiences.

This is the United Nations Cyberschool bus website. The Cyberschool initiative is an online education element of the Global Teaching and Learning Project, which aims at enhancing awareness about international affairs. The website serves as channel to bring together teachers and students from around the world and communicate information about international issues.

This website has links for a large number of prejudice-related issues. Also, it includes exercises to help gain a more thorough perspective on issues of prejudice and discrimination, along with a ‘teacher’s corner’, with relevant teaching tips and materials.

Sample Syllabus

Overview

This teaching and learning guide can be used as a component of any syllabus that includes coverage of intergroup relations, stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. The component will focus mainly on the role of intergroup contact for reducing prejudice, with particular emphasis on the latest developments of the theory and their practical implications. This format can be introduced as a seminar, in which students read relevant papers using the focus questions suggested below for guided discussion.

The component could consist of the following themes:

1. The Contact Hypothesis: When and how it works

This theme could include the conditions facilitating, and the mediators explaining, the effects of intergroup contact on attitudes and behavior.

2. Indirect forms of contact

This theme could cover extended and imagined contact. Specifically, it can focus on similarities and differences between the paradigms, and the benefits of indirect forms of contact along with their limitations.

3. Imagined Contact: Applications and interventions

This theme could focus on the practical application of the imagined contact idea. Students can create small groups and discuss the potential application of different forms of Imagined Contact in school and community settings.

Focus Questions

  • 1
    Is intergroup contact always effective in reducing prejudice and improving relations?
  • 2
    What are the psychological mechanisms that explain how direct contact, extended contact, and imagined contact reduce prejudice?
  • 3
    Would you expect majority and minority status groups to differ in the way they respond to contact-based interventions? If so, why?
  • 4
    What are the strengths and weaknesses of indirect forms of contact?
  • 5
    How can we develop a contact-based intervention in a school setting and target possible biases between children belonging to different ethnicities?

Seminar/Project Idea 1

For the assessment of this component students can be asked to develop a research proposal that will address a critical issue regarding imagined contact. The proposal can aim at either addressing a criticism of the theory or further developing it. The research proposal will need to include a critical literature review outlining the basic concepts, up-to-date findings and the rationale for designing a new study. The method section should include details about how the students plan to introduce imagined contact, recruit participants and what their dependent variables will be. Students should then conclude with the theoretical and practical implications of their proposed research.

Seminar/Project idea 2

Here, students can be asked to focus on a specific intergroup context that involves prejudice or intergroup conflict (e.g., attitudes of the young toward the elderly, homophobia, or anti-Muslim attitudes). Some example sources of information include:

Northern Ireland

Israel-Palestine

Cyprus

After reading some background information on the context, the students should consider applying a contact intervention to help improve the relations between the groups. Specifically, students should decide on the order that they would use the different forms of contact (direct contact, extended contact, and imagined contact) in order to maximize the effectiveness of the combined intervention. For example, in a social context where there is little opportunity for actual intergroup contact, or where anxiety levels are high (so motivations to engage in contact are low), imagined contact could be used as a preparatory measure. Its implementation prior to direct (or extended) contact will potentially boost interest in contact and/or buffer anxiety, such that people will be subsequently more inclined to engage in actual contact when future opportunities arise.