The power of imagination on prejudice

Contact theory seems to be the new hot topic when it comes to solving the age old problem of prejudice. The theory simply states that given the right conditions if members of differing groups come in contact with one another, the interaction ultimately leads to more positive intergroup relations.

Crisp and Turner decided to pose a fascinating question. What if members of those groups didn’t actually meet, but simply imagined the positive social interaction? Would the results still be significant? Research has shown that imagining a social situation can have the same effect as the real thing, so Crisp and Turner weren’t too far off the mark when they decided to persue this line of inquiry. Reviewing the research, indeed they found that imagined contact improved intergroup attitudes, greater projection of positive traits to outgroups, reduced anxiety, and reduced stereotype threat. Some examples they included were the changing of young people’s attitudes toward older people, straight men’s attitudes toward gay men, and Mexican people’s attitudes toward Metizos in Mexico. They were able to rule out cogntive load, demand characterstics, stereotype priming, and positive affect as possible alternative explanations.

One limitation of imagined contact the authors mention is its weaker impact compared to more direct forms of intergroup contact. Another limitation I can think of is the daunting task of getting people to actually practice this new way of relating to others, but first they must be willing to challenge their preconceived notions rather than continue to follow an “ignorance is bliss” philosophy.

Crisp RJ, & Turner RN (2009). Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions?: Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. The American psychologist, 64 (4), 231-40 PMID: 19449982


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