Prejudice and animosity between groups derives largely from the idea that the "they" are somehow different from "us". Hundreds of studies have shown that this animosity can dissolve when members of different groups make contact with each other - becoming friends, colleagues and neighbours. Unfortunately, contact between members of different groups isn't always possible. Just think of the racial segregation in many British cities.
Promisingly, however, research has shown that so-called "extended contact" can also help break down prejudices - that is, simply having a friend who is friends with a member of the out-group can improve a person's attitudes towards that group. Now an exciting new study has taken this line of research even further, showing that merely imagining positive contact with members of an out-group can help improve attitudes towards that group.
In an initial experiment, Rhiannon Turner and Richard Crisp had half of 25 students aged between 18 and 23 spend two minutes imagining a positive encounter with an elderly person, whilst the remaining students imagined an outdoor scene. These were the specific instructions for the imagined contact group: "imagine yourself meeting an elderly stranger for the first time. Imagine that during the encounter, you find out some interesting and unexpected things about the person."
Afterwards, the students who'd imagined meeting an elderly person subsequently showed more positive attitudes towards elderly people than did the control group. This was true whether their attitudes were tapped using an explicit questionnaire, or using a test of implicit, subconsciously held, attitudes - the IAT. Briefly, this measures how easily people associate pairs of categories, such as old people and negative words, or young people and positive words, by allocating the categories to the same or different response keys.
A second experiment replicated this finding but in the context of non-Muslim participants' attitudes towards Muslims. In this case, the control condition required the participants to merely "think about Muslims" in contrast to the intervention which required participants to imagine a positive encounter with a Muslim person. Again, the participants who imagined a positive encounter subsequently showed more positive attitudes, explicit and implicit, compared with the control group. This shows that it is specifically imagining a positive encounter with an out-group member that is beneficial, not just thinking generally about that out-group.
"Given that direct intergroup contact is a highly effective means of reducing prejudice, these findings suggest that imagined contact is an exciting alternative to direct contact that can be used in contexts where face-to-face contact is not possible," the researchers said.
Turner, R., & Crisp, R. (2009). Imagining intergroup contact reduces implicit prejudice. British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1348/014466609X419901
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.