Insights from psychology can reduce conflict between groups, it feels like we need that help now more than ever. A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that a simple anti-prejudice intervention, grounded in research and advocated by many social psychologists, can backfire for some people. This sounds like a bad news story, but it isn’t. The result adds to our understanding of when the intervention is likely to help and when to take extra care.
The background to this is the important finding that when people from different social and cultural backgrounds spend time together, their prejudice toward each other often evaporates, as they come to realise just how much they have in common – a phenomenon referred to as the Contact Effect. More recently, social psychologists have discovered that something similar happens when people simplyimagine having positive interactions with individuals from other backgrounds. It’s a finding with huge appeal as an anti-prejudice intervention because anybody can do it anywhere, and unlike real contact, there are no risks of a meet-up going awry.
But is imagined positive contact always beneficial? Research on real contact between people from different backgrounds has found that it can actually lead to worsened intergroup attitudes if one party tries too hard to come over as non-prejudiced. Keon West and Katy Greenland wondered if the same problem might apply to imagined contact.
The researchers recruited 51 White British A-level (high-school) students with an average age of 17 years, and asked half of them to spend two minutes imagining having a positive, relaxed and comfortable meeting with an Asian stranger for the first time. The other students acted as a control group and they spent the same time imagining having a similarly successful meeting with “a stranger” (i.e. their ethnic background was not mentioned).
After the imagination task, all the students answered questions about how much in the imagined contact they had been focused on coming across as non-prejudiced, known as a “prevention focus”. The students also rated how much they’d been focused on being friendly and having a good interaction – so-called “promotion goals”. Finally, they rated their attitudes towards Asian people and how anxious or confident they’d feel about meeting an Asian person in the future.
Students in the group that imagined a positive meeting with an Asian person and who had a “prevention focus” actually reported feeling more anxiety toward meeting an Asian person afterwards, as compared with students in the control group with a prevention focus. In turn, more anxiety was associated with more negative attitudes toward Asian people. Why should this be? The researchers surmised that “a prevention focus depletes cognitive resources and increases discomfort, potentially making even an imagined interaction more difficult and less pleasant”. People may then use “these negative experiential feelings as information about future interactions with the outgroup, resulting in more anxiety and thus more negative attitudes.”
A second experiment was similar but this time the researchers recruited members of the public, and now they primed half the participants to have a prevention focus and half to have a promotion focus – they did this in a very abstract sense with those in the prevention group taking on the role of a mouse in a maze game fleeing an owl and those in the promotion group hunting for cheese! Another difference in this experiment was that half the participants then went on to imagine a successful encounter with a stranger who was a gay man, while those in the control condition spent the same time imagining a similarly successful encounter with a generic stranger.
Afterwards the participants rated their attitudes toward gay men and their anxiety about meeting a gay man. Consistent with the first experiment, participants primed to have a prevention focus and who imagined an encounter with a gay man subsequently reported more anxiety about a real meeting with a gay man, as compared with participants in the control group who had also been primed with a prevention focus. Taken together, the two experiments suggest that just as trying too hard to make a non-prejudiced impression can harm real interactions between people from diverse backgrounds, the same self-conscious approach can also sour imagined interactions.
The study has a problem in that the researchers didn’t actually manage to replicate the usual beneficial effects of positive imagined contact, even among those participants who had a promotion focus or who were primed to have a promotion focus – for these participants, the imagined contact with an Asian or gay man had no apparent effect, good or bad, compared to the control condition.
Nonetheless, West and Greenland say their results are important because they demonstrate the point that in some circumstances for some people, imagined contact might actually be harmful, increasing intergroup anxieties. The researchers acknowledge the potential usefulness of imagined contact as an anti-prejudice intervention, but they conclude that “it remains important to understand the potential moderators of [its] effects, particularly those that may render it counter-effective as well as ineffective.”