Conflict resolution 2.0: Can Internet-based intergroup contact reduce prejudices?

Conflict resolution 2.0: Can Internet-based intergroup contact reduce prejudices?

More than 60 years ago, Gordon W. Allport published his renowned book “The Nature of Prejudice“ (1954)  in which he discussed why individuals hold negative opinions about, for instance, African Americans or Catholics and how contact between social groups (i.e., intergroup contact) may reduce such prejudices.  The latter proposition—also known as the contact hypothesis—inspired an ever-growing literature on intergroup relations.

Following field work and experiments all around the world, a comprehensive meta-analysis of 515 studies concluded that intergroup encounters during which individuals collaborate towards a common goal, holding an equal status and receiving authority support, improves attitudes towards one another (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). The majority of this research focused on the effects of face-to-face or direct contact. In addition, it has been demonstrated that observing or knowing about an in-group member (i.e., member of a group one feels to belong to) who has contact with the out-group (i.e., a group one does not feel to belong to) decreases prejudices. These indirect forms of contact are referred to as extended or vicarious intergroup contact. Interestingly, even imagining an encounter with a member of another group can enhance one’s attitudes towards the out-group (see Dovidio, Eller, and Hewstone (2011) for a summary of indirect intergroup contact).
With the growing popularity and technological advancement of the Internet, the scope of direct and indirect forms of intergroup contact has been extended. Services of computer-mediated communication and social media platforms allow individuals from around the world to meet and interact, despite geographical or societal borders.  In recent years, researchers from different disciplines started exploring the effect of intergroup encounters on the Internet.
For example, White and colleagues (White & Abu-Rayya, 2012; White, Abu-Rayya, & Weitzel, 2014) assessed interactions of Muslim and Christian students from segregated schools in Australia.  The students worked together over eight weeks via text-based synchronous communication, discussing how “their religious identities can actively contribute to an ‘environmentally sustainable future for Australia’“ (White & Abu-Rayya, 2012, p. 599).  Two Muslim and two Christian students collaborated to develop a solution for an environmental challenge.  The joint tasks were, for example, described as: “’Water has important uses in Muslim and Christian religious practices. For example, Catholic babies are baptized in water that has been blessed by a priest. Similarly, Muslims purify themselves by performing wudu, which involves wiping their hands, face, hair, arms and feet with water before praying in each of their five daily prayers. As Muslim and Catholic students, what can you do at home to save water to help the Australian environment?’” (White & Abu-Rayya, 2012, p. 599).
Two weeks and six months after the program, attitudes towards the other students and their religious group were examined.  The findings indicate that intergroup bias (i.e, holding more positive opinions towards one’s own group as compared to an out-group) and anxiety (i.e., expecting an encounter with the out-group to be unpleasant) were reduced and knowledge about the out-group increased. White and colleagues (White et al., 2014) continued to examine the impact of the intervention after 12 months.  In line with the previous results, ongoing Internet-based intergroup contact further reduced intergroup bias.
Hoter, Ganayem, and Shonfeld (2014) investigated whether aspiring teachers from different backgrounds—religious Jews, secular Jews, and Arab Muslims—improve attitudes towards one another after working together online with text-, audio- and video tools.  At the Center for Multiculturalism and Technology teachers were trained in the use of technology in an educational setting.  In addition to independent course work and shared lessons, participants collaborated in groups of three (representing the three cultures) to learn how they could implement digital tools and methods in their teaching.  Participants interacted almost every week via chat rooms, blogs, wikis, or audio tools and then moved on to include video or to meet in person.  Teachers who participated in the virtual encounters experienced less prejudices, with the exception of secular Jews: Religious Jews’ negative attitudes towards Muslims were reduced as were Muslims’ negative attitudes towards religious Jews and secular Jews.
Although research on Internet-based intergroup contact is only in its infancy, these findings suggest that intergroup contact through means of computer-mediated communication or on social media platforms has the potential to positively shape intergroup relations.  In settings where direct contact is not feasible, due to costs or security reasons, intergroup contact via the Internet offers an effective opportunity to influence mutual understanding and prejudices.  Moreover, in protracted conflicts where group members feel unsafe or are not willing to face the out-group, the mediated encounters could provide a first step, reducing anxiety and building a path towards direct exchanges.
A number of research projects are underway to further evaluate the impact of Internet-based intergroup contact; a special issue in the journal Computers in Human Behavior is forthcoming in 2015.  If you are doing work in this field or are interested in the topic, please feel free to get in touch with me.
Allport, G. W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Reading: Addison-Wesley.
Dovidio, J. F., Eller, A., & Hewstone, M. (2011). Improving intergroup relations through direct, extended and other forms of indirect contact. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 147-160.
Walther, J. B., Hoter, E., Ganayem, A., & Shonfeld, M. (2014). Computer-mediated communication and the reduction of prejudice: A controlled longitudinal field experiment among Jews and Arabs in Israel.Computers in Human Behavior. Retrieved from:
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90, 751-783.
White, F. A., & Abu-Rayya, H. M. (2012). A dual identity-electronic contact (DIEC) experiment promoting short-and long-term intergroup harmony. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 597-608.
White, F. A., Abu-Rayya, H. M., & Weitzel, C. (2014). Achieving twelve-months of intergroup bias reduction: The dual identity-electronic contact (DIEC) experiment. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 38, 158-163.

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