The contact hypothesis
From an article in The Correspondent
How do you reconcile sworn enemies?
With that question in mind, a US psychologist, Gordon Allport, set out for South Africa in the spring of 1956. Apartheid had already been imposed. Mixed marriages were prohibited and later that year the administration would adopt a law reserving better jobs for whites. The psychologist’s name was Gordon Allport, and all his life he’d pondered two basic questions: 1) Where does prejudice come from, and 2) How can you prevent it?
After years of research, he’d found a miracle cure. Or at least he thought he had. What was it?
Contact. Nothing more, nothing less. Gordon suspected that prejudice, hatred and racism stem from a lack of contact. We generalise wildly about strangers because we don’t know them. So the remedy seemed obvious: more contact.
Most scientists were not impressed and called Gordon's theory simplistic and naive. With the second world war still fresh in people’s minds, the general consensus was that more contact led to more friction. In those very same years, psychologists in South Africa were still investigating the “science” of differences in racial biology that would justify “separate development” (read: apartheid).
For many white South Africans, Gordon’s theory was positively shocking. Here was a scientist arguing that apartheid wasn’t the solution to their problems, but the cause. If blacks and whites could only meet – at school, at work, in church, or anywhere at all – they could get to know one another better. After all, we can only love what we know.
This, in a nutshell, is the contact hypothesis. It sounds too simple to be believed, but Gordon had some evidence to back it up. He pointed to the race riots that broke out in Detroit in 1943, for instance, where sociologists had noticed something strange: “People who had become neighbours did not riot against each other. The students of Wayne University – white and black – went to their classes in peace throughout Bloody Monday. And there were no disorders between white and black workers in the war plants … ” On the contrary, people who were neighbours had shielded one another. Some white families sheltered their black neighbours when rioters came around. And vice versa.
Even more remarkable were the data gathered by the US military during the second world war. Officially, black and white soldiers were not supposed to fight side by side, but in the heat of battle it sometimes happened. The army’s research office discovered that in companies with both black and white platoons, the number of white servicemen who disliked blacks was far lower. To be precise, nine times lower.
Gordon Allport wrote page after page about the positive effects of contact. It applied to soldiers and police officers, to neighbours and students. If black children and white children attended the same schools, for example, they were seen to lose their prejudices.
Perhaps the most powerful proof for Gordon’s contact hypothesis came from the sea. When African Americans were first admitted to the largest seamen’s union in 1938, there was initially widespread resistance. But once black and white seamen actually began working together, the protests ceased.
Gordon Allport was a cautious man; he knew his case was still far from watertight. It’s possible that the sailors who signed on for mixed crews might be less racist to begin with. As he travelled through South Africa in 1956, Gordon’s initial doubts resurfaced. In this country where blacks and whites had been living side by side for centuries, racism was not diminishing. If anything, it seemed to be increasing. Of the many white Afrikaners Allport met, none seemed to have mental disorders, yet all continued to exclude and discriminate.
So did his theory really hold up?
Enter Nelson Mandala. After his release from prison, Mandela was able to rally 90% of black South Africans to the cause. He then turned his efforts to winning the hearts of white Afrikaners through persistent and deep contact.
Subsequently in 2006, Thomas Pettigrew, a student of Gordon Allport, presented a massive study that provided overwhelming support for his former mentor’s theory. Thomas and his team rounded up and analysed 515 studies from 38 countries. Their conclusion? Contact works.
Contact engenders more trust, more solidarity and more mutual kindness. It helps you see the world through other people’s eyes. Moreover, it changes you as a person, because individuals with a diverse group of friends are more tolerant towards strangers. And contact is contagious: when you see a neighbour getting along with others, it makes you rethink your own biases. For every unpleasant incident we encounter, there are any number of pleasant interactions.
Contact researchers consequently stress that people need time to get used to one another. Contact works, but not instantly. An example was fierce protests in 2015 in Holland against the opening of reception centres for Syrian refugees. Angry objectors arrived yelling and name calling, and even threw stones through windows. But then a couple of years later, that anger turned to sadness when the same asylum seekers had to be relocated elsewhere. “We had no problems here. In fact, it was all positive,” reported one man who just a few years earlier had issued violent threats. “It’s become a place to socialise, like a community centre. I enjoy going over for a cup of coffee.”
Interacting with strangers is something we have to learn, preferably starting from childhood. Best of all would be if every young person could travel. This is not to say we need to change who we are. Quite the opposite. Among the most notable findings to come out of contact science is that prejudices can be eliminated only if we retain our own identity. We need to realise it’s OK that we’re all different – there’s nothing wrong with that. We can build strong houses for our identities, with sturdy foundations.
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