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The Disproportionate Influence of Negative Encounters with Out-Group Members on Prejudice

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 two recent articles, my colleagues and I proposed that if people have a negative encounter with someone from a different social group, then they are more likely to think about the person's group memberships (e.g., their gender, race, nationality, etc.) than if they had a positive encounter with them. We also proposed that this increased awareness of a person's group memberships following a negative encounter 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.

To test the first part of our model, 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.

To test the second part of our model, 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.

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 work 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 articles, “our results are not a call and should not serve as a justification for intergroup segregation or isolationism” (Paolini et al., 2010, p. 1734). 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 articles:

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, 1723-1738. doi: 10.1177/0146167210388667

A self-archived version of this journal article is available here.

Barlow, F. K., Paolini,S., Pedersen, A., Hornsey, M. J., Radke, H. R. M., Harwood, J., Rubin, M., & Sibley, C. G. (2012). The contact caveat: Negative contact predicts increased prejudice more than positive contact predicts reduced prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1629-1643. doi: 10.1177/0146167212457953

A self-archived version of this journal article is available here.

An accessible summary of this journal is available here.

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.