What works to reduce prejudice and discrimination? - A review of the evidence

A review of international evidence on prejudice reduction interventions

Section Three: Theories On Prejudice-Reduction

The previous section provided a brief discussion of what prejudice is and how it functions, included some important caveats, and raised issues around definition and terminology. It is important to explore these concerns when thinking about what interventions might be useful in terms of challenging prejudice more broadly, as well as specifically relating to sectarianism in Scotland. Before going on to examine some of the evaluated prejudice-reduction interventions, and the available evidence of their effectiveness, it is necessary to present some of the key theories behind the literature, which is dominated by psychology studies. This section summarises some of the key theoretical bases for some of the most frequently-used and potentially effective prejudice-reduction interventions. Of course, there are broader debates about whether governments have the right to intervene in such domains (Libertarian vs. 'nanny-state' approaches), however this report presupposes that careful intervention is acceptable - assuming flexibility, transparency, reflection, and a voluntary approach.

There is no standard way of categorising the various types of interventions, but theories of prejudice reduction can be roughly divided into two camps. The first is the theory of intergroup contact whereby association with other groups may reduce negative attitudes and promote inclusivity. The second comprises of theories which focus on exposure to information about other groups, which challenge and alter the way people think about other groups (through education and re-education, or media, for example). These are sometimes known as antibias theories. The latter assumes that contact alone is not sufficient, and that people need to re-educate themselves to move on from old assumptions and to change attitudes. Educational initiatives and media campaigns will have objectives of reducing 'threat' through increased knowledge and learning, for example. These two broad approaches are not always separate; indeed the majority of interventions will overlap to some extent.

Intergroup contact theories

Allport (1954) developed the original 'contact hypothesis', proposing that interaction between members of different groups would help to facilitate prejudice reduction, particularly if the interrelated conditions of intergroup contact - equal status (and power); interdependence (common goals); and authority sanction (support from relevant authorities) - were met. The notion that positive experiences with members of a perceived 'out-group' might help to counter negative perceptions or stereotypes associated with this group may seem basic, almost a common-sense approach, however the contact hypothesis is the root of most prejudice-reduction theory. Cross-group friendships have been shown to reduce intergroup anxiety and promote empathy, and studies have found that contact is particularly effective at helping to reduce prejudice amongst children. Abrams (2010: 69) notes that:

"Intergroup contact and school diversity tend to be associated with improved intergroup understanding and positive attitudes"

Prejudice is often a result of false beliefs, misconceptions and stereotypes, so common sense would suggest that discovering that these are incorrect through contact with other groups will result in improved attitudes. Lab-based and field studies have continually confirmed the effectiveness of contact, highlighting its ability to challenge prejudice by reducing intergroup anxiety and increasing empathy for other groups (the two underlying mechanisms). In a meta-analytic test of 'Intergroup Contact Theory', based on 713 independent samples from 515 studies, Pettigrew and Tropp (2006: 922) found that:

"Greater intergroup contact typically corresponds with lower levels of intergroup prejudice, and 94% of the studies reveal an inverse relationship between contact and prejudices of many types".

Central to the contact theory is the notion that developing more positive than negative ideas about an out-group will extend beyond the immediate contact so that reductions in prejudice are not confined to individuals in contact, and instead impact on attitudes towards entire groups. However, according to Brown (1995) and Brown et al (1999), this depends on maintaining the salience of group differences. It is argued that boundaries should be maintained in order to increase the chance of generalisation of positive attitudes towards the group as a whole. Brown suggests that if contact takes place in a context where group difference is played down - for example, through emphasising shared identity, sameness - then members of the 'out-group' are less likely to be seen as 'representative' of the wider group, and positive attitudes may only be directed at individual level. Such debates highlight the complex balance between trying to maintain distinction in a positive sense while attempting to remove the more negative associations of stereotyping.

Direct contact is not always necessary: the 'extended contact' hypothesis posits that even knowledge that a member of the in-group has positive relationships with out-group members can also reduce prejudice (for example, 'friends of friends'). The following section will also touch on vicarious contact through media etc. when actual contact between groups is rare. Intergroup contact theory traditionally focused on 'racial' or other ethnic groups, as it was a key area of interest for psychologists and other scholars interested in prejudice in the context of growing civil rights movement in the mid-20th century. However, evidence supports extending this to other intergroup contexts (Pettigrew and Tropp 2006: 766), and more recently increased attention has been given to other forms of prejudice such as towards LGBT groups or disabled people.

Significantly, research by Hodson (2011) concluded that individuals holding high levels of prejudice actually benefited more from intergroup contact than relatively tolerant people did, highlighting the potential value of contact. The reasons for this are not fully explained. The 'ceiling effect', in the sense that people with already favourable attitudes towards other groups have less 'room for improvement', only partly explains this. Hodson suggests that significantly reducing threat and anxiety through contact is particularly effective for people with higher levels of prejudice, and encourages further research to explore this further. This also emphasises the need to consider who is most in need of intervention, and to bear this in mind when designing, implementing, and evaluating interventions. As Hodson notes, highly prejudiced people are more likely to deliberately avoid intergroup contact, so thinking about how to promote opportunities for contact and remove barriers for those less likely to seek it is vital. Are the prejudice-reduction interventions that exist reaching the people that will benefit most? If not, how can we work towards this?

However, there are limitations, and we should think critically about the value of contact. Although contact is positive in general, it needs to be sensitively managed and designed or it can be counter-productive. People have to see improved attitudes or relations as a desired objective. Temporary contact, which may often be superficial (for example, attendance at a half-day 'diversity workshop' in the workplace), will not be as effective at changing attitudes compared to long-term contact with the potential for cross-group friendships. In this vein, Pettigrew (1998) calls for an additional criteria to Allport's 'contact conditions' - length of contact which would allow for the development of possible friendships between members of different groups.

Yet even long-term proximity will not always naturally encourage positive relations and/or a reduction in prejudiced attitudes. According to Abrams (2010: 81), studies show even when schools are 'mixed', children tend to favour same-race rather than cross-race friendship. A study conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2005 also found that pupils attending schools in multi-cultural areas displayed less, not more, tolerance to pupils from different ethnic backgrounds (17). Moreover, returning again to the point about relations between men and women, it is clear that high levels of contact (and the fact that men generally have positive views about women) does not remove the existence of gender stereotyping or sexual discrimination. Pettigrew (2008) notes that the prejudiced views about women that some men hold occur when women "step out of the roles society has prescribed for them" (115). Exposure itself, even if long-term, is insufficient, because most contact situations do not meet Allport's 'conditions' (e.g. 'equal power and status). It is crucial to consider the context and quality of contact, as well as issues of (historic and contemporary) power relations: a crucial caveat for contact theories. Devine (1989) suggests that a significant amount of effort is required on the part of individuals if their prejudices are to be overcome. The recognition of one's own bias, and the desire to overcome prejudice, must exist.

Going beyond contact: actively challenging bias

Given the limitations of contact theory, in some cases it may be necessary to purposely challenge prejudices, though this should be done carefully and not necessarily in a 'direct' manner. As emphasised earlier, prejudice may be held and acted upon by individuals, however it is a social problem, and as such requires us to consider how social change materialises. As an example we might consider how racism (at least in its crude, biological guise) became less socially acceptable in the latter decades of the 20th century. Lewin (1947/1951), one of the founders of social psychology and among the first to examine group dynamics and tensions, theorised that change in individuals is most successfully achieved through group encounters. Lewin's work preceded the development of Allport's contact hypothesis, but arguably helps to address some of its limitations. For Lewin, a process of 'reeducation' can challenge entrenched perceptions, stereotypes, and values. His theory is summarised by Bargal (2008):

"Lewin (1945/1948) likened false stereotypes and prejudices to erroneous concepts and theories. In his view, the first step to changing those concepts and theories is to re-examine them. Re-examination should be carried out through an alternative perception of the self and one's social relations. It cannot be left to accident, and group experiences should be planned as a forum for such re-examination. Lewin suggested that through the group one can acquire norms and means to learn new perceptions and behaviours, marked by a commitment to self-examination, active confrontation with one's own perceptions and perceptions held by the other group members, active involvement in problem solving, and a willingness to expose oneself to empirical examination of ideas and conceptions"

Lewin highlights some of the key conditions in which re-education in a group setting might bring about positive change in prejudiced attitudes. Ideally, the interaction should take place in an informal setting. Participation should be voluntary and, importantly, people should be free to express their often conflicting viewpoints in a safe environment. These conditions may help alleviate some of the unintended effects that contact can cause - such as the increased levels of prejudice towards other ethnic groups in schools with higher levels of diversity noted in the aforementioned Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. Contact within schools is of course not voluntary or informal, and pupils are subject to rules and regulations about what they can and cannot say or do. 'Mixing' groups in more informal settings, for example recreational activities, may result in increased positive interactions - essentially more meaningful contact. As will be discussed throughout this report, studies seem to support these points in terms of what interventions are most effective.

Various educational strategies can be employed in this sense, to seemingly positive effect. Cooperative learning programmes are arguably the most widespread interventions in schools. Paluck and Green (2009) argue that meta-analyses of studies based on the idea of cooperative learning "consistently confirmed a positive impact of cooperation on outcomes such as positive peer relationships and helpfulness" (355), though long-term effects are obviously harder to track. Educational efforts to reduce implicit bias include encouraging empathy, perspective taking, and 'imagining counter-stereotypic examples'. Like other prejudice-reduction initiatives, empathy-inducing interventions have most potential to be successful with young children (Abrams 2010) but this does not preclude these being used in adolescent or adult education settings.

Walsh (1988) suggests that prejudice could be challenged by teaching people to question their assumptions about the world around them, stating that "thinking critically is the antithesis of prejudicial thinking." Thinking critically, learning about history, discussion of sensitive topics, and shared learning / shared curriculums are some of the key themes that emerge from the literature on tackling prejudice through education. Walsh highlights the challenges of articulating a positive, anti-prejudice message:

"Research suggests that direct teaching of prejudice-reduction techniques may be ineffective, whereas indirect teaching of the skills and dispositions needed to combat prejudice is effective. This simply means that merely telling students they should not be prejudiced is ineffectual" (1988).

Rather than 'instructing' what types of behaviours, language, or attitudes, for example, are 'wrong' - something that, as noted earlier, is often subjective and contested - teaching skills and disposition, such as critical thinking and empathy, could be more effective.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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