Back in February, I wrote about some research in which my colleagues and I showed that negative experiences with people from other groups are better at drawing attention to the people's group memberships than positive experiences (Paolini, Harwood, & Rubin, 2010). In other words, if you have a negative encounter with someone from another group, then you are more likely to think about their group memberships (e.g., their gender, race, nationality, etc.) than if you have a positive encounter with them. This increased awareness of a person's group memberships following a negative encounter with them is potentially problematic for the goal of reducing intergroup conflict in society because it means that people are naturally biased towards attributing bad things to out-group members' groups and generalizing their negative experiences with one out-group member to all of the other out-group members. Our preliminary evidence provided some support for this assumption, showing that people were more likely to mention a woman's ethnicity when she behaved negatively rather than positively. However, we did not go as far as testing whether this out-group salience effect led to greater prejudice against the out-group.
Now, Fiona Barlow and colleagues have found this missing piece of the puzzle in a series of research studies published this week (Barlow, Paolini, Pedersen, Hornsey, Radke, Harwood, Rubin,
& Sibley, 2012). We looked at prejudice against Black Australians, Muslim Australians, and asylum seekers and found that negative experiences with these people were a stronger and more consistent predictor of negative attitudes towards them than positive experiences were of positive attitudes. For example, negative experiences, but not positive experiences, with Black Americans predicted suspicion about Barack Obama’s birthplace, which represents a subtle measure of racism.
results suggest that negative experiences with out-group members are not only more likely than positive experiences to make people think about out-group members' group memberships, but also to influences people's attitudes towards the out-groups. Taken together, these two recent papers suggest that negative experiences with out-group members have a greater potential than positive experiences to influence people's thoughts and feelings about out-groups. This work implies that we should redouble our efforts to encourage positive experiences between members of different groups because this positive intergroup contact is naturally disadvantaged against improving intergroup relations when compared with the more powerful influence of negative intergroup contact.
For further information, please see the following journal article: Barlow, F., Paolini, S., Pedersen, A., Hornsey, M., Radke, H., Harwood, J., Rubin, M., & Sibley, C. (2012). The Contact Caveat: Negative Contact Predicts Increased Prejudice More Than Positive Contact Predicts Reduced Prejudice Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38 (12), 1629-1643 DOI: 10.1177/0146167212457953