What is prejudice reduction research?

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Several approaches to the reduction of prejudice have been studied over the years. Intergroup contact, the introduction of a common enemy, the crossing of social categories, and the presentation of information in the media are all strategies that have been considered in the effort to reduce prejudice. Evidence regarding the effectiveness of these strategies is mixed, and research has been directed toward examining the specific mechanisms underlying prejudice reduction.
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Gordon Allport defined prejudice as an attitude toward the members of an out-group in which the evaluative tendencies are predominantly negative. It seems self-evident that the reduction and elimination of prejudice are among the most pressing real-world problems confronting psychology. Several different approaches to the reduction of prejudice have been examined.

Each of these approaches to prejudice reduction is derived from one or more of the suspected root causes of prejudice. Numerous explanations have been offered in attempts to account for prejudice. For example, some people believe that individuals develop negative attitudes toward other groups that are perceived as competing with their own group. Alternatively, it is possible that differences in familiarity with one’s own group versus other groups can lead to differential perceptions and evaluations of the two groups. Prejudice might also develop as people grow up and learn from others about the features of different groups, especially if the features depict negative characteristics for certain groups. Finally, social thinking might inherently involve categorization processes that often lead people to divide the world into “us” and “them.” The different strategies designed to reduce prejudice generally focus on one of these concerns and try to reduce that specific concern in the hope of reducing prejudice.

Contact Hypothesis

One of the most obvious and most heavily researched techniques for reducing prejudice is exemplified by what is called the contact hypothesis: that association with persons from a disliked group will lead to a growth of liking and respect for that group. Scholarly considerations of this basic idea can be traced back at least to the 1940s; for example, it can be found in Robin Williams’s 1947 book, The Reduction of Intergroup Tensions. It is the seminal work of Allport, however, that is generally credited with being the classic formulation of the contact hypothesis. In The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Allport developed a taxonomy of relevant factors necessary for contact to be successful in reducing prejudice. These factors emphasized the nature of the contact experience, and they included the frequency and duration of contact, the relative status of the two groups, and the social atmosphere of the contact experience. Extensive reviews of the research examining the contact hypothesis were published by Yehuda Amir in 1976 and Miles Hewstone and Rupert Brown in 1986. Some studies have demonstrated a reduction of prejudice toward the out-group, whereas other studies have shown contact actually to increase prejudice among members of the majority group along with causing a decrease in self-esteem and an increased sense of isolation among members of the minority group. Part of the difficulty may stem from the differences between intended contact and actual levels of contact. For example, Donald Taylor and his colleagues have argued that intergroup contact is often avoided. One study showed that black and white students in a desegregated school “resegregated” themselves into ethnic groups during classroom activities and recess. Thus, the general emphasis has shifted from “whether the contact hypothesis is valid” to “under what conditions, and in what domains, is the contact hypothesis valid.”

A variant of the contact hypothesis in the context of desegregated schools is the cooperative team intervention. In this type of intervention, small groups of schoolchildren, including children of two ethnic groups, are assigned to complete a task in which they need to cooperate to succeed. Sometimes these small groups are later put into competition with other similar groups. Norman Miller and Gaye Davidson-Podgorny, in a study published in 1987, have shown that this type of cooperative team intervention is generally effective in reducing prejudice, at least in terms of attitudes toward out-group classmates.

Belief Congruence Intervention

An alternative approach is known as the belief congruence intervention. According to this strategy, prejudice and intergroup hostility are driven by the assumption that members of the out-group hold beliefs that are different from those held by the in-group. Therefore, if it can be learned that members of the out-group are actually more similar to the in-group, then members of the out-group might be liked more and prejudice will be diminished. This approach is illustrated by Rachel Dubois’s 1950 “neighborhood festival,” in which members of different ethnic groups talked about nostalgic memories of childhood, holidays, and so on. The goal was for participants to recognize that group experiences, customs, and meanings are in fact remarkably alike and that different ethnic groups actually share membership in a broader commonality. While this intervention sounds very appealing, its success rests on a problematic assumption: the perceived differences between groups are illusory, and learning about intergroup similarities in beliefs will bring people to a more enlightened enjoyment of one another. If there are fundamental differences between the central beliefs of two groups (for example, as between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East), then the belief congruence approach is unlikely to be successful.

Finally, the role of the media in maintaining or reducing prejudice should be considered. Research has shown that ethnic minority groups are sometimes portrayed in negative ways in the news media and popular entertainment. While little research has examined the prejudice-reducing effects of the media, it is reasonable to speculate that more positive portrayals of ethnic minorities in the media might make a substantial contribution in the future to the reduction of prejudice. In line with this possibility, research by Fletcher Blanchard and his colleagues has found that exposure to the normative influence of other people expressing antiracist views can increase an individual’s expression of antiracist views.

Desegregation and Other Applications

There are several specific settings in which the contact hypothesis may be seen to operate. The most vivid example is desegregation in classroom settings. A considerable amount of research has examined this particular contact setting and, as indicated above, the results are mixed. As summarized by Janet Schofield in 1986, school desegregation in the United States may have had a less positive effect than one might have hoped because the problems that have characterized race relations in the United States have limited both the extent and the nature of intergroup contact in desegregated schools. Fortunately, there are several other contexts in which intergroup contact can be fostered. Unfortunately, the evidence regarding the effectiveness of these other contact interventions is also mixed. For example, in 1985 Amir and Rachel Ben-Ari reported that tourists visiting a foreign country did not evidence decreased prejudice toward the (out-group) members of that country. Similarly, in 1966 Otto Klineberg showed that the attitudes of foreign exchange students toward the local people were on the whole friendly on arrival, but became slightly less so on the average after a period of residence in that foreign country. Alternatively, in 1986 Ulrich Wagner and Uwe Macleit reported that increased contact with Gästarbeiter (guest workers, the majority of whom are Turkish) in the Federal Republic of Germany was associated with reduced prejudice toward these foreign workers.

As delineated by Hewstone and Brown, there is a large dilemma plaguing research on the contact hypothesis involving the nature of the contact itself. On one hand, the contact could be strictly interpersonal, where members of the two opposing groups interact with one another as individuals. This approach is emphasized in the work of Miller and Marilynn Brewer published in 1984. On the other hand, the contact could be strictly intergroup, where members of the two opposing groups interact with one another as group members. This approach is emphasized in the work of Hewstone and Brown. It is unclear which of these two types of contact is more effective. A related problem is the generalization of positive attitudes that might be stimulated by contact. The contact with specific individuals from another ethnic or national group might lead to more positive attitudes about those specific individuals, but this does not guarantee that those more positive attitudes will generalize to the rest of that ethnic or national group as a whole.


This sets the stage for the fundamental paradox of the contact hypothesis. As discussed by Jennifer Crocker in 1984, information about a single exceptionally positive out-group member may engage a “subtyping” mechanism: the exceptionally positive member may be functionally subtyped into a separate category, leaving the overall out-group category intact. As illustrated in a discussion by John Pryor and Thomas Ostrom in 1987, the professor who holds the stereotype that “athletes are unintelligent” will create a separate subtype of “smart athletes” in response to meeting a smart athlete, rather than changing the overall stereotype for athletes. The general form of the paradox can be stated as follows: To have the potential to change the negative evaluation of the out-group, the exceptional member of the out-group must be uniquely positive. If, however, the exceptional member of the out-group is uniquely positive, then he or she is likely to be subtyped into a class of his or her own, thereby leaving the overall negative evaluation of the out-group intact.

As the belief congruence approach shows, one concept of the reduction of prejudice is concerned with the idea that members of two groups can be led to redefine the boundaries between the groups. This idea is more directly illustrated in Willem Doise’s research on cross-categorization. This refers to a situation in which one categorization that splits people into two groups (such as black-white) is crossed with a second categorization (such as liberal-conservative), so that people are split into four groups (white liberals, white conservatives, black liberals, and black conservatives). Doise has found that this cross-categorization reduces discrimination between the two original groups. Presumably, learning that some of “them” are really like “us” helps to mitigate the prejudice against “them.”

An extreme version of a recategorization strategy is illustrated in an intervention that might be called the common-enemy strategy. This approach was illustrated in Muzafer Sherif and colleagues’ 1961 “Robbers Cave” study. In this study, eleven-year-old boys in a summer-camp setting were divided into two groups. The two groups engaged in a series of competitions, which resulted in both verbal and physical signs of prejudice toward the other group. When the two groups were combined to compete against a team from another camp, however, the negative attitudes toward the (former) out-group diminished.

The basic assumption underlying the common-enemy strategy is that a common enemy should cause the two (initially conflicting) groups to set aside their differences to overcome the external threat represented by the “common enemy.” While there is little research evidence that directly examines this strategy (Sherif’s study is the notable exception), ample anecdotal evidence illustrates the all-too-often-employed strategy of drawing disparate and disagreeing members of a political unit together by casting them as a cohesive unit in the face of some threat posed by an external out-group.

There are two problems with this approach that should be recognized: First, the strategy is likely to be effective only in the short term. As discussed by Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif, the introduction of a common enemy in the Robbers Cave study did draw the two conflicting groups together in an effort to defeat the new opposing out-group. As soon as the opposing out-group left the scene, however, the old conflicts between the two original groups of campers reemerged. A similar affect was seen in the eruption of ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Second, this strategy does not really reduce overall levels of prejudice and conflict; it simply redirects it. In other words, although groups A and B are no longer in conflict, these two groups have now joined in conflict against group C. This intervention carries with it moral concerns about the justification for selecting group C as a target for prejudice in an effort to reduce the original prejudice that group A held toward group B.

Social Psychology

Understanding prejudice and developing strategies to reduce it have long been major concerns of social psychologists. Techniques used for studying prejudice, however, have changed over the years. Earlier research relied heavily on observing the outward behavior of one group’s members toward another group’s members and analyzing people’s responses on surveys. The development of computers and other sophisticated experimental techniques has enabled researchers to probe more deeply into the specific cognitive workings that may result in prejudice. This has helped illuminate a number of intriguing features about prejudice.

For example, Patricia Devine, in a study published in 1989, showed that what distinguishes unprejudiced people from prejudiced people is not that unprejudiced people automatically respond in nonprejudiced, egalitarian ways. Rather, both prejudiced people and unprejudiced people may engage in automatic, learned responses of negative evaluation toward stereotyped out-groups. The unprejudiced people, however, are able to engage controlled cognitive processes that thwart the expression of these undesirable prejudiced responses. Viewed in this way, Devine suggests, prejudices may be likened to bad habits, and the replacement of prejudiced responses with nonprejudiced responses can be likened to the breaking of such habits.

The work by Devine illustrates a key ingredient in all efforts to reduce prejudice. The way people learn and process information about groups may inherently lead to differential perceptions and evaluations of these groups. Because of a need to simplify and organize information, these differential perceptions and evaluations may be incorporated into stereotypes, which may be negative for some groups. As discussed by Brian Mullen in 1991, for a technique for reducing prejudice to be successful, it must take this cognitive processing of information about different groups into consideration. There does not seem to be any magic solution to the problem of prejudice. It seems apparent, however, that people need to be aware at some level of the cognitive biases that can develop. Consistent with Devine’s findings, becoming consciously aware of the biases in thinking about certain groups may be an important first step in the effort to reduce prejudice.


Allport, Gordon W. The Nature of Prejudice. 1954. 25th anniversary ed. LaVergne: Basic, 2010. Print.

Chin, Jean Lau. The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Rev. and condensed ed. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010. Digital file.

Hewstone, Miles, and Rupert Brown, eds. Contact and Conflict in Intergroup Encounters. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. Print.

Jones, James, M., et al. The Psychology of Diversity: Beyond Prejudice and Racism. Chichester: Wiley, 2014. Print.

Jones, James M. Prejudice and Racism. 2d ed. New York: McGraw, 1997. Print.

Miller, Norman, and Marilynn Brewer, eds. Groups in Contact: The Psychology of Desegregation. Orlando: Academic, 1984. Print.

Mullen, Brian. “Group Composition, Salience, and Cognitive Representations: The Phenomenology of Being in a Group.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 27.4 (1991): 297–323. Print.

Oskamp, Stuart, ed. Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination. Hoboken: Taylor, 2013. Digital file.

Ponterotto, Joseph G., Shawn O. Utsey, and Paul B. Pedersen. Preventing Prejudice: A Guide for Counselors, Educators, and Parents. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2006. Print.

Shields, David Light. "Deconstructing the Pyramid of Prejudice." Phi Delta Kappan 95.6 (2014): 20–24. Print.

Willis-Esqueda, Cynthia. Motivational Aspects of Prejudice and Racism. New York: Springer, 2008. Print.

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