Allport’s Intergroup Contact Hypothesis: Its History and Influence

Contact hypothesis was proposed by Gordon Allport (1897-1967) and states that social contact between social groups is sufficient to reduce intergroup prejudice.

However, empirical evidence suggests that this is only in certain circumstances.

Key Takeaways:

  • The contact hypothesis fundamentally rests on the idea that ingroups who have more interactions with a certain outgroup tend to develop more positive perceptions and fewer negative perceptions of that outgroup.
  • Theorists have long been interested in intergroup conflict. However, Robin Williams and Gordon Allport proposed a number of conditions for ameliorating intergroup conflict that has formed the basis of empirical research for several decades.
  • Allport suggests four “positive factors” leading to better intergroup relations; however, recent research suggests that these factors can facilitate but are not necessary for reducing intergroup prejudice.
  • Although originally studied in the context of race and ethnic relations, the contact hypothesis has applicability between ingroup-outgroup relations across religion, age, sexuality, disease status, economic circumstances, and so on.

Historical Background

The contact hypothesis is the idea that intergroup contact under particular conditions can reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.

In a single chapter of his book, The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport (1955) attempts to address the question of what happens when groups interact through his “intergroup contact hypothesis.”

This chapter has spawned a large research literature on race relations and beyond. Theorists have been speculating about the effects of intergroup contact since the 19th century.

Social Darwinists such as William Graham Sumner (1906) believed that intergroup contact almost inevitably leads to conflict. Sumner believed that because most groups believed themselves to be superior, intergroup hostility and conflict were natural and inevitable outcomes of contact.

Perspectives such as those in Jackson (1983) and Levine and Campbell (1972) make similar predictions. In the twentieth century, perspectives began to diversify.

While some theorists believed that contact between in groups, such as between races, bred “suspicion, fear, resentment, disturbance, and at times open conflict” (Baker, 1934), others, such as Lett (1945), believed that interracial contact led to “mutual understanding and regard.”

Nonetheless, these early investigations were speculative rather than empirical (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005). The emerging field of social psychology emphasized theories of intergroup contact.

The University of Alabama researchers Sims and Patrick (1936) were among the first to conduct a study on intergroup contact but found, discouragingly, that the anti-black attitudes of northern white students increased when immersed in the then all-white University of Alabama.

Aligning more with the later work of Allport, Brophy (1946) studied race relations between blacks and whites in the nearly-desegregated Merchant Marine. The researchers found that the more voyages that white seamen took with black seamen, the more positive their racial attitudes became.

In a similar direction, white police in Philadelphia with black colleagues showed fewer objections to working with black partners, having black people join previously all-white police districts, and taking orders from qualified black police officers (Kephart, 1957; Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

Following these studies, Cornell University sociologist Robin Williams Jr. offered 102 propositions on intergroup relations that constituted an initial formulation of intergroup contact theory.

These propositions generally stressed that intergroup contact reduces prejudice when (Williams, 1947):

  • The two groups share similar statuses, interests, and tasks;
  • the situation fosters personal, intimate intergroup contact;
  • participants do not fit stereotypical conceptions of their group members;
  • the activities cut across group lines.

Stouffer et al. offered the first extensive field study of the effects of intergroup contact (1949).

Stouffer et al. demonstrated that white soldiers who fought alongside black soldiers in the 1944-1945 Battle of the Bulge tended to have far more positive attitudes toward their black colleagues (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005), regardless of status or place of origin.

Researchers such as Deutsch and Collins (1951); Wilner, Walkley, and Cook (1955); and Works (1961) supported mounting evidence that contact diminished racial prejudice among both blacks and whites through their studies of racially desegregated housing projects.

Allport’s Four Conditions

All of this prior work, scholars agree, created a foundation and context for Allport’s thinking (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005). Indeed, Allport cited Williams, Brophy, Stouffer, et al. and the housing studies in The Nature of Prejudice.

Additionally, Allport was influenced by his doctoral students Bernard Kramer (1950) and Barbara MacKenzi (1948), noting that intergroup contact can both reduce and exacerbate prejudice, and finally accounting for these consistencies by adopting four “positive factors” for deprejudizing group contact reminiscent of Williams (1947):

1. Equal Status Between Groups

Members of the contact situation should not have an unequal, hierarchical relationship (e.g., teacher/student, employer/employee).

Both groups perceive the other to be of equal status in the situation (Cohen, 1982; Riordan and Ruggiero, 1980; Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

Although some scholars emphasize that groups should be of equal status both prior to (Brewer and Kramer, 1985) and during (Foster and Finchilescu, 1986) a contact situation, research demonstrated that equal status could promote positive intergroup attitudes even when the groups initially differ in status (Patchen, 1982; Schofield and Rich-Fulcher, 2001).

2. Common Goals

Members must rely on each other to achieve their shared desired goal. To have effective contact, typically, groups need to be making an active effort toward a goal that the groups share.

For example, a national football team (Chu and Griffey, 1985; Patchen, 1982) could draw from many people of different races and ethnic origins — people from different groups — in working together and replying to each other to achieve their shared goals of winning. This tends to lead to Allport’s third characteristic of intergroup contact; intergroup cooperation (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

3. Intergroup Cooperation

Members should work together in a non-competitive environment.

According to Allport (1954), the attainment of these common goals must be based on cooperation over competition. For example, in Sheriff et al. ‘s (1961) Robbers’ Cave field study, researchers devised barriers to common goals, such as a planned picnic that could only be resolved with cooperation between both groups.

This intergroup cooperation encourages positive relations between the groups. Another instance of intergroup cooperation has been studied in schools (e.g., Brewer and Miller, 1984; Johnson, Johnson, and Maruyama, 1984; Schofield, 1986).

For example, Elliot Aronson developed a “jigsaw” approach such that students from diverse backgrounds work toward common goals, fostering positive relationships among children worldwide (Aronson, 2002).

4. The Support of Authorities, Law, or Custom

The support of authorities, law, and customs also tend to lead to more positive intergroup contact effects because authorities can establish norms of acceptance and guidelines for how group members should interact with each other.

There should not be official laws enforcing segregation. This importance has been demonstrated in such wide-ranging circumstances as the military (Landis, Hope, and Day, 1983), business (Morrison and Herlihy, 1992), and religion (Parker, 1968).

Legislation, such as the civil-rights acts in American society, can also be instrumental in establishing anti-prejudicial norms (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

Why Does Contact Reduce Prejudice?

Brewer and Miller (1996) and Brewer and Brown (1998) suggest that these conditions can be viewed as an application of dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957).

Specifically, when individuals with negative attitudes toward specific groups find themselves in situations in which they engage in positive social interactions with members of those groups, their behavior is inconsistent with their attitudes.

This dissonance, it is theorized, may result in a change of attitude to justify the new behavior if the situation is structured so as to satisfy the above four conditions.

In contrast, Forbes (1997) asserts that most social scientists implicitly assume that increased interracial/ethnic contact reduces tension between groups by giving each information about the other.

Those who write, adopt, participate in or evaluate prejudice reduction programs are likely to have explicit or implicit informal theories about how prejudice reduction programs work.

Examples of Contact Hypothesis


Historically, in contact hypothesis research, racial and ethnic minorities have been the out-group of choice; however, the hypothesis can extend to out-groups created by a number of factors. One such alienating situation is homelessness.

Like many out-groups, homeless people are more visible than they once were because of their growth in number as well as extensive media and policy coverage.

This has elicited a large amount of stigmatization and associations between homelessness and poor physical and mental health, substance abuse, and criminality, and ethnographic studies have revealed that homeless people are regularly degraded, avoided, or treated as non-persons by passersby (Anderson, Snow, and Cress, 1994).

Lee, Farrell, and Link (2004) used data from a national survey of public attitudes toward homeless people to evaluate the applicability of the contact hypothesis to relationships between homeless and housed people, even in the absence of Allport’s four positive factors.

The researchers found that even taking selection and social desirability biases into account, general exposure to homeless people tended to affect public attitudes toward homeless people favorably (Lee, Farrell, and Link, 2004).

Contact Between Age Groups

In the 1980s, there was a trend of pervasive age segregation in American society, with children and adults tending to pursue their own separate and independent lives (Caspi, 1984).

This had consequences such as a lack of transmission of work skills and culture, poor preparation for parenthood, and generally inaccurate stereotypes and unfavorable attitudes toward other age groups.

Caspi (1984) assessed the effects of cross-age contact on the attitudes of children toward older adults by comparing children attending an age-integrated preschool to children attending a traditional preschool.

Those in the age-integrated preschool (having daily contact with older adults) tended to hold positive attitudes toward older adults, while those without such contact tended to hold vague or indifferent attitudes.

In addition, children placed in the age-integrated preschool show better differentiation between adult age groups than those not in that preschool.

These findings were among the first to suggest that Allport’s contact hypothesis held relevance in intergroup contact beyond race relations (Caspi, 1984).

Contact Between Religious Groups in Indonesia and the Philippines

Following a resurgence of religion-related conflict and religiously motivated intolerance and violence and the 1999-2002 outbreak of sectarian violence in Ambon, Indonesia, between Christians and Muslims, researchers have become motivated to find ways to reduce acts of religiously motivated intolerance.

Kanas, Scheepers, and Sterkens (2015) examined the relationship between interreligious contact and negative attitudes toward religious out-groups by conducting surveys of Christian and Muslim students in Indonesia and the Philippines.

They attempted to answer the following questions (Kanas, Sccheeepers, and Sterkens, 2015):

  1. Does positive interreligious contact reduce, while negative interreligious contact induces negative attitudes towards the religious out-group?
  2. Does the perception of group threat provide a valid mechanism for both the positive and negative effects of interreligious contact?
  3. Does positive interreligious contact reduce negative out-group attitudes when intergroup relations are tense and both groups experience extreme conflict and violence?

The researchers focused on four ethnically and religiously diverse regions of Indonesia and the Philippines: Maluku and Yogyakarta, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Metro Manila, with Maluku and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao having more substantial religious conflicts than the other two regions.

Kanas, Scheepers, and Sterkens found that even accounting for the effects of self-selection, interreligious friendships reduced negative attitudes toward the religious out-group, while casual interreligious contact tended to increase negative out-group attitudes.

In regions experiencing more interreligious violence, there was no effect on interreligious friendships but a further deterioration in effect between casual interreligious contact and negative out-group attitudes.

Kanas, Scheepers, and Sterrkens believed that this effect could be explained by perceived group threat.

Evaluating the Contact Hypothesis

Allport’s testable formulation of the Contact Hypothesis has spawned research using a wide range of approaches, such as field studies, laboratory experiments, surveys, and archival research.

Pettigrew and Tropp (2005) conducted a 5-year meta-analysis on 515 studies (a method where researchers gather data from every possible study and statistically pool results to examine overall patterns) to uncover the overall effects of intergroup contact on prejudice and assess the specific factors that Allport identified as important for successful intergroup contact.

These studies ranged from the 1940s to the year 2000 and represented responses from 250,493 individuals across 38 countries.

The researchers found that, in general, greater levels of intergroup contact were associated with lower levels of prejudice and that more rigorous research studies actually revealed stronger relationships between contact and lowered prejudice (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

The meta-analysis showed that the positive effects of contact on group relations vary dramatically between the nature of the groups, such as age, sexual orientation, disability, and mental illness, with the largest contact effects emerging for contact between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals.

The smallest contact effects happened between those with and without mental and physical disabilities (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

Although meta-analyses, such as Pettigrew and Tropp’s (2005) show that there is a strong association between intergroup contact and decreased prejudice, whether or not Allport’s four conditions hold is more widely contested.

Some researchers have suggested that the inverse relationship between contact and prejudice still persists in situations that do not match Allport’s key conditions, albeit not as strong as when they are present (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

Gordon Allport taught sociology as a young man in Turkey (Nicholson, 2003) but emphasized proximal and immediate causes and disregarded larger-level, societal causes of intergroup effects.

As a result, both Allport and Williams (1947) doubted whether contact in itself reduced intergroup prejudice and thus attempted to specify a set of “positive conditions” where intergroup contact did.

Researchers have criticized Allport’s “positive factors” approach because it invites the addition of different situational conditions thought to be crucial that actually are not.

As a result, a number of researchers have proposed a host of additional conditions needed to achieve positive contact outcomes (e.g., Foster and Finchilescu, 1986) to the extent that it is unlikely that any contact situation would actually meet all of the conditions specified by the body of contact hypothesis researchers (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

Researchers have also criticized Allport for not specifying the processes involved in intergroup contact’s effects or how these apply to other situations, the entire outgroup, or outgroups not involved in the contact (Pettigrew, 1998).

For example, Allport’s contact conditions leave open the question of whether contact with one group could lead to less prejudicial opinions of other outgroups.

All in all, Allport’s hypothesis neither reveals the processes behind the factors leading to the intergroup contact effect nor its effects on outgroups not involved in contact (Pettigrew, 1998).

Theorists have since pivoted their stance on the intergroup contact hypothesis to believing that intergroup contact generally diminishes prejudice but that a large number of facilitating factors can increase or decrease the magnitude of the effect.

In fact, according to newer theoretical approaches, there are negative factors that can even subvert the way that contact normally reduces prejudice (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005).

For example, groups that tend to feel anxiety and threat toward others tend to have less decreased prejudice when put in contact with other groups (Blair, Park, and Bachelor, 2003; Stephan et al., 2002).

Indeed, more recent research into the contact hypothesis has suggested that the underlying mechanism of the phenomenon is not increased knowledge about the out-group in itself but empathy with the out-group and a reduction in intergroup threat and anxiety (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2008; Kanas, Scheepers, and Sterkens, 2015).


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Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.