Interracial Roommate Relationships: An Experimental Field Test of the Contact Hypothesis

While prejudice and racism are unfortunate realities of our society, psychologists are revealing valuable insights into this complicated human tendency. A new study shows that living with someone of a different race can help to reduce anxiety and other negative feelings towards minorities.

In a study by Natalie J. Shook of Virginia Commonwealth University and Russel H. Fazio of Ohio State University, white college freshmen were randomly paired with either white or African American roommates to examine how a natural setting, such as a college dorm room, could improve interracial relationships.

According to the contact hypothesis, simply interacting with members of a minority could lead to reduced prejudice and overall improved feelings towards that group. Many previous studies have verified this theory, but their results have all relied on self-report measures. Because racism is frowned upon, it is not unlikely that any such results are dishonest or active attempts to be morally right and avoid being stigmatized as a racist. In contrast, this study used more reliable, non-obtrusive methods to measure the participants’ implicit feelings towards different ethnic groups.

In this study, white freshmen were to share a dorm room with either a white or African American student for part of the academic year. At the beginning and end of the observed time period, the participants answered questions about how well they got along with their roommate and how comfortable they felt around each other. Additionally, participants examined faces of people from different ethnic groups, and positive and negative adjectives at the same time as an implicit measure of how they felt towards other groups.

The results, published in the July issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, had both positive and negative aspects in regards to interracial relationships. Participants who had an interracial dorm room generally reported spending less time with their roommate and were not as comfortable around them in contrast to those in same-race rooms.

However, relationship evaluations did actually improve in the interracial dorm rooms. Most importantly, implicit racial attitudes improved and intergroup anxiety was reduced in participants who had shared a room with someone of a different race. In contrast, those who shared a room with someone of the same race had no change in answers by the end of the study.

“Thus,” the authors concluded, “the results suggest that interracial roommate relationships, although generally less satisfying and involving than same-race roommate relationships, do produce benefits.”

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