APS Member/Author: Elizabeth Levy Paluck
The contact hypothesis in psychology predicts that prejudice can be reduced when rival groups come together under optimal circumstances of cooperation and equal status. To date, the weight of real-world evidence for this hypothesis comes from self-reported attitudes after self-initiated contact, not from preregistered randomized trials that take intergroup contact as seriously as one would take a potential vaccine for conflict (1, 2). Consequently, on page 866 of this issue, the results of Mousa’s (3) new field experiment are breaking news. Mousa intervened in amateur Christian soccer leagues across Northern Iraqi cities affected by ISIS violence. To assess the impact of this ambitious real-world intervention, she randomly assigned Muslim players to half of the teams, measured players’ behavior up to 6 months later, and posted her preregistered analysis plan and data alongside the report. Mousa finds that having Muslim teammates causes Christian players to change their behavior for the better toward Muslim players, by including them, working with them, and awarding them material signs of respect. Team-based contact with minority group members reduced prejudiced behavior toward other minority group players.
Given its relevance for policy (Mousa notes that $877 million was allocated in 2020 toward “social cohesion” programming by the U.S. Agency for International Development) and that the contact hypothesis has been studied for many years, some may classify this research as an application of a well-known finding. This would be inaccurate. Previous research has not demonstrated cause and effect with real-world interventions or measured behaviors or otherwise leveraged the most robust research methodologies. These methods are crucial, given that the anticipated effects of contact range from positive change to backlash, in which contact stirs latent resentments. This makes Mousa’s research more similar to basic science that makes progress toward fundamental evidence than to applied research that tests policy interventions based on a robust foundation of scientific evidence. Work in the field, which is often mistaken for applied research because of its location outside the laboratory, performs the function of basic science when it comes to the question of whether intergroup contact increases social cohesion.
The study presents a fundamental theoretical puzzle: Why don’t the positive behavioral effects generalize out of context, or to positive intergroup attitudes? The first piece of the puzzle is that the observed changes are limited to behaviors and not attitudes. A growing number of field experiments on prejudice reduction uncover this pattern (4, 5), which counters both lay and scientific notions that attitudes guide behavior. One could argue that between attitudes and behaviors, it is better to change behavior because prejudicial action is worse than harboring prejudicial attitudes. Additionally, public behaviors may cause more downstream change because they are more easily observable than private attitudes (6). More work is needed to measure these kinds of spillover effects, following on Mousa’s finding that community members who attended more games were more likely to view religious and ethnic divisions as arbitrary. Future work can also disentangle whether attitudes are simply more difficult to change or whether current research is not measuring the correct attitudes.
Perhaps the nature of intergroup contact is useful for changing a more limited range of attitudes than those measured in the present study. Mousa observes one instance of attitude change among players: the item regarding arbitrary religious and ethnic divisions. She points out that it represents a change in “abstract attitudes rather than concrete policy positions.” As it was originally conceived, the contact hypothesis was a salve for prejudice or animus, not for antagonistic political opinion or behavior (7). Since then, psychological evidence has grown, suggesting that prejudice-reduction interventions have inconsistent and even unintended effects on related political attitudes (8). Mousa defines and measures the target of her intervention, social cohesion, as a more compound concept than prejudice, involving intergroup cooperation and policy attitudes. Interventions such as contact that are intended to soften attitudes toward outgroups may need to be combined with additional activities to channel newfound goodwill into a political or policy position. Early work on interracial contact in the United States recognized this point. For example, in addition to creating ideal contact conditions for Black and White individuals working in teams, one study using Black actors to mention instances of discrimination and race-based hardship helped White participants connect their experience to larger societal issues (9).
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