Intergroup Contact and Explicit and Implicit Biases

By Jordan Axt

In general, intergroup contact-- exposure to people from groups other than one's own-- is related to lower levels of implicit and explicit bias favoring the relevant group. However, there are multiple types of intergroup contact. Intergroup contact can occur at the individual level (for instance, a White person having consistent interactions with Black friends or colleagues), or at the environmental level (for instance, living in a neighborhood where others frequently have intergroup contact).

Past work has largely found that both forms of contact are related to lower levels of explicit bias that people self-report -- but only when contact is defined as actual, sustained interaction with other group members. When contact is defined as the opportunity for interaction (for instance, simply living in an area with relatively more Black people), greater population diversity is associated with more explicit bias favoring one’s own group over the other group.

It is less clear whether the benefits of intergroup contact exist for groups that are not easily identifiable, such as with sexual orientation. For example, it is possible that the effects of living in an area where more people have interactions with gay people may not impact one's own biases because we might not notice such interactions. This question was the focus of a recent paper by Cara MacInnis, Elizabeth Page-Gould, and Gordon Hodson, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Using publicly available data from Project Implicit, the researchers found that people living in areas where others reported more contact with gay people also showed reduced levels of implicit and explicit anti-gay bias. That is, regardless of one’s own frequency of interactions with gay people, living in an area where such interactions were more common was also associated with less implicit and explicit bias towards gay people.

Aside from replicating past work, these data may also shed light on how intergroup contact relates to bias. The authors argue that one way that “environmental contact” could impact an individual’s level of bias is through establishing norms. Areas with more intergroup contact may create social norms that such contact is acceptable or expected. These social norms may then help reduce bias towards stigmatized group members, even when someone does not experience such contact personally.

Of course, like the data presented in many articles reviewed on this blog, the results are correlational, which means it is not possible to conclude that contact caused reductions in bias. However, these data offer exciting new ideas for how contact might be used in the future to test strategies for lessening intergroup bias. While direct interactions with members of other groups could be an effective way to reduce bias, so too may simply living in areas where intergroup contact among others is common.