Positive contact in a divided world

Ella Rhodes reports from a joint British Academy / British Psychological Society lecture, from Professor Rhiannon Turner.

In our diverse world, life brings us into contact with people of numerous different identities, different races from our own, different sexualities and ages. When it’s done right, positive contact can have multiple benefits – from changing how we view other members of that group to how we perceive the world around us. But while we may not consciously acknowledge it, crossing the divide to have positive interactions with people from groups which are different from our own can be difficult and anxiety-provoking.

Professor Rhiannon Turner (Queen’s University, Belfast), in her joint British Academy and British Psychological Society lecture at the Royal Society, explained the importance of confidence in engaging with people from an array of different backgrounds. This confidence describes a state of readiness regarding contact… having the skills, beliefs and experiences to have positive and meaningful interactions with people who aren’t similar to ourselves.  

But why does contact with people from different groups matter? Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, described in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice, suggested that contact between different groups would improve relations between them. The type of contact matters, though. For contact to be useful it should involve cooperation to achieve common goals.

More recently it has been suggested that contact should be friendly and positive, and that friendship-based contact is one of the best ways to improve intergroup relations.

In one of her PhD studies Turner looked at the relationships that white British primary school children had with children from South Asian backgrounds. Those with more South Asian friends had more positive attitudes towards South Asian people, were less anxious interacting with children from South Asian backgrounds, and were more likely to engage in reciprocal self-disclosure with South Asian students – an important factor in forming friendships.

Now based in Northern Ireland, Turner has also begun to explore relationships between Catholic and Protestant students. Many schools in Northern Ireland remain relatively segregated along those religious lines, but Turner found students in secondary schools who had more friends from the opposite group to themselves again engaged in more reciprocal disclosure, were more likely to empathise what the other community had been through during the Troubles and were more likely to have positive attitudes towards the other community. In a further study of university students in Northern Ireland, Turner found those who had positive contact with members of the other community were more likely to date someone from the other community and to see cross-community marriage as appropriate.

Not only can contact affect our views of groups different to our own, it may even affect our views of the world. Turner explained that research has previously shown an association between those who see some groups as better than others and a willingness to exploit the environment. She suggested if you have a deep belief in status, your focus will more likely be on making money for yourself than improving the environment – which would benefit everyone. It has been suggested that having more contact with those outside your own group will lead to a greater feeling that all people are equal, and Turner wanted to investigate whether contact with other groups could affect the perception of environmental issues.

Across four studies she and her colleagues found that those who had had positive contact with a range of groups had more concern about environmental issues, acted in a more environmentally friendly way and were less likely to be climate change deniers.

However, there’s a catch. People do tend to segregate themselves along group lines. In school cafeterias, Turner said, we can see pupils dividing themselves up into ethnic groups. Cross-group friendships tend to be less durable than same-group friendships, and the number of cross-group friendships a person has tends to decline with age as people become more aware of their identities.

People avoid contact with members of different groups for a number of reasons, one of which is anxiety. Turner explained that people fear these interactions will be awkward or that they will make a faux pas or behave inappropriately. If someone feels feel this anxiety, or a lack of confidence in these interactions, that person may come across quite negatively to a member of a different group. People who feel this anxiety might have a rigid facial expression, put more distance between themselves and the other person, avoid eye contact or hesitate when talking. This gives the impression to the person from the other group that a person may dislike them or be prejudiced.

So what builds the confidence to engage in contact with members of different groups? Turner and her colleague Dr Lindsey Cameron (University of Kent) have argued that those who feel confidence in contact have positive attitudes to other groups, have more positive expectations, good social skills, lower anxiety, feel more similar to other groups, recognise that having friends in other groups is beneficial, and have a supportive friendship group and family. Amongst year seven and eight pupils in the UK from a range of ethnic backgrounds, Cameron and Turner found that those who had positive contact with ethnic groups other than their own in primary school, had parents and friends who had positive contact with other groups, and had lower anxiety and more confidence in cross-ethnic contact and higher quality cross-ethnic friendships.

Turner also described interventions which may increase someone’s confidence in contact. One is extended contact, a theory developed in the mid-90s by Stephen Wright. This suggests that having friends in your own group who themselves have friends in different groups may reduce prejudice towards those other groups. In Turner’s PhD, amongst white British primary and secondary school pupils and university students, those with more friends who had Asian friends had more positive expectations about Asian people, less anxiety and more positive attitudes towards Asian people in general.

Another study saw Turner showing undergraduate students a video of a fellow student having a friendly interaction with someone they were told had schizophrenia. After watching the video the participant was told they would be having a short interaction with someone they were told (falsely) had schizophrenia. A video of the interaction was rated for positivity by two independent coders as well as the ‘person with schizophrenia’. Those people who watched the video of extended contact between a student and apparently schizophrenic person showed less of an increase in their heartrate prior to their own interaction, but there was no difference between controls and the experimental group during the face-to-face interaction. The same pattern could be seen with skin conductance measures: the experimental group showed less of an increase while anticipating the interaction, but around the same levels as controls during the actual interaction. Those people who had watched the extended contact were viewed to show more positive non-verbal behaviour and were rated more positively by the person who apparently had schizophrenia.

The second potential intervention to increase confidence in contact is simply imagining contact with an out-group. In the last decade or so since the first ever study on imagined contact there have been around 100 studies in the area. Many have shown that imagining contact leads to more positive perceptions of other groups, can increase people’s confidence to engage in contact and can lower anxiety around potential future interactions.

In one of Turner’s studies into imagined contact, participants were asked to imagine a positive interaction with a Muslim or, in the case of the control group, a stranger. The participants were taken to another room and told they were about to have a face-to-face meeting with a Muslim person and were asked to put two chairs out ready – using the distance between the chairs as a dependent measure. Those who had imagined contact with a Muslim person placed the chairs, on average, 17cm closer than controls.

Using similar methods to their extended contact study, Turner asked students to imagine a positive interaction with a person with schizophrenia. This was followed by a brief interaction with an apparently schizophrenic person. The pattern of results was very similar to their extended contact study – those who imagined a positive contact showed less of an increase in their heart rate and sweating while anticipating a face-to-face interaction. Again, those who imagined contact showed more positive behaviour in the face-to-face interaction than controls.

The third intervention which has been found to be useful is online contact with those from different groups, with some research suggesting online contact has benefits over direct contact. Turner said this could be useful in schools, and can help people overcome their anxiety. This could allow people to take more time in responding to others, and may make self-disclosure more likely – important in forming relationships.

In one study Catholic and Protestant undergraduates spend 10 minutes chatting online with someone from the opposite religious community to themselves carrying out a cooperative task – developing ideas for use in a brochure for people coming to university. These participants, compared with controls who chatted to someone from the same religious community, had more positive expectations about the other group and less anxiety about interacting with them, as well as more positive attitudes towards the other community.

Turner and her colleague Professor Roger Austin (University of Ulster) have also been examining the use of virtual learning environments which bring together pupils from Catholic and Protestant schools to learn. Teachers have spoken positively about using these systems which help children maintain and develop friendships, learn about their shared interests while also developing respect for difference, and prepare for face-to-face interactions.

Turner said that in the future she and Lindsey Cameron hope to look longitudinally at the predictors and outcomes of confidence in contact. She has also recently been involved in a Channel 4 documentary which involved attempting to promote positive relations at a multi-ethnic school in London. 

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