Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Positive and Negative Experiences with Members of Other Groups

When people have positive experiences with members of another group, they tend to generalize these experiences from the group member to the group as a whole. This process of member-to-group generalization results in less prejudice against the group. Notably, however, researchers have tended to ignore what happens when people have negative experiences with group members.

In a recent article, my colleagues and I proposed that negative experiences have an opposite but stronger effect on people's attitudes towards groups. In other words, negative experiences with group members produce a negative attitude towards the group that is stronger than the positive attitude produced by positive experiences. We assumed that this disproportionate influence of negative intergroup contact occurs because negative experiences draw attention to other people's groups, and this increased group salience allows greater generalization of negative experiences from group members to their groups.

To test this assumption, we asked 52 research participants to meet with a woman from Sri Lanka. Unbeknowst to our participants, we instructed the woman to behave in either a warm and relaxed manner (positive experience condition) or a distant and tense manner (negative experience condition). After the meeting, participants completed a questionnaire in which they described the woman. Participants in the negative experience condition were significantly more likely to mention the woman’s ethnicity compared to participants in the positive experience condition. Hence, consistent with our predictions, negative contact experiences were more likely to make people think about the other person’s group.

Our research findings are problematic for the goal of reducing prejudice because they indicate that negative experiences are more likely than positive experiences to generalize from group members to their groups. Hence, if an intergroup situation contains a mix of both positive and negative experiences, the negative experiences will have the most influence on attitudes about the group, leading to more prejudice, not less.

Our research leads to the worrying conclusion that intergroup contact may be naturally biased towards worsening intergroup relations rather than improving them. However, as we stress in our article, “our results are not a call and should not serve as a justification for intergroup segregation or isolationism”. Previous research has found that positive intergroup contact is a reliable and effective method for reducing prejudice (for a review, see Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Hence, the real message of our work is that, when intergroup contact situations contain a mix of both positive and negative experiences, we need to strengthen the positive experiences in order to overcome the disproportionately powerful influence of the negative experiences and bring about an overall reduction in prejudice, discrimination, and intergroup conflict.

For further information, please see the following journal article: Paolini, S., Harwood, J., & Rubin, M. (2010). Negative Intergroup Contact Makes Group Memberships Salient: Explaining Why Intergroup Conflict Endures Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (12), 1723-1738 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210388667

This research was supported by the Australian Research Council's Discovery Projects funding scheme (Project DP0770704). However, the views expressed above are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council.