Contact Hypothesis: Definition, Limitations & Criteria for Successful Contact

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  • 0:05 Contact Hypothesis
  • 1:00 Failure of Contact
  • 2:36 When Contact Works
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

For many years, social psychologists have studied ways to reduce prejudice. In this lesson, we will review the contact hypothesis on how to reduce prejudice, examine the famous Robbers Cave experiment, and see what types of contact work best in the fight against prejudice.

Contact Hypothesis

Joey and Jimmy go to the same camp. Joey is part of a team at the camp called the Eagles, and Jimmy belongs to another group named the Rattlers. The Eagles and the Rattlers compete in games and activities, and the members of the groups hate each other. Joey can't stand Jimmy because he is a Rattler.

Prejudice occurs when a person judges another person because of a group they belong to. Often, prejudice refers to racial or gender groups, but Joey is demonstrating prejudice against Rattlers when he decides he doesn't like Jimmy just because he belongs to the Rattlers.

For many years, psychologists have tried to figure out how to overcome prejudice. One theory is the contact hypothesis. The contact hypothesis says that bringing members from different groups together will reduce prejudice. The idea is that exposure to others of different groups will reduce your prejudice for those groups.

Failure of Contact

So, according to the contact hypothesis, the camp can reduce Joey's prejudice by having the Eagles and the Rattlers spend time together. This is what the Supreme Court tried to do in 1954 when they banned segregation in schools. The idea was that, through contact in schools, racism would be reduced.

The results did not support the contact hypothesis, though. Studies found that, following desegregation, racism actually increased, not decreased. It seemed that mere contact was not enough to do away with racism.

Psychologist Muzafer Sherif decided to find out why contact didn't work. In 1961, he took a group of boys and set up a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys were divided into teams, including the Rattlers and the Eagles. Each team participated in team-building activities and then competed with the other team. Like Joey and Jimmy, the boys were hostile to the other team. Prejudice against the other team became the norm, and violence and name-calling began.

Then Sherif put the teams together, offering them lots of opportunities to come in contact with each other with events like watching a movie or firecrackers. But, as with integration in schools, mere contact did not work. The hostilities continued.

But, Sherif didn't stop there. He gave the groups problems that they had to solve: the water supply had been vandalized; they had to raise money to go to a movie. The groups were forced to work together towards the larger goal. It was while working together that the hostilities between the Rattlers and the Eagles finally subsided.

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