We like to think of ourselves as open-minded, accepting people. I can’t imagine a single person I know who would revel in being described as narrow-minded and reclusive. However, despite this self-description, we all have our own cliques. Take a minute and think about those with whom you identify, who your friends are, who you admire, and who you allow to be in your inner circle. This is your “in-group.” Now do the opposite. Think about from whom you choose to disassociate, those people you just don’t want to be around, and those who elicit apathy. These people constitute your “out-group.” They are your out-group for a variety of reasons, justified or not.
After World War II, social scientists began studying the effects of contact between in-groups and out-groups in order to determine if it could positively influence prejudice and stereotypes. One of these social scientists, Thomas Pettigrew, developed his own version, Intergroup Contact Theory, based on empirical evidence, studies, and research. It discusses the four interdependent processes that “operate through contact and mediate attitude change.”
The first step is just learning about the out-group. To begin the process of improving attitudes and stereotypes, we must acquire new information about the out-group.
The second step, changing our behavior, is a difficult one. Attitude change is often contingent upon behavior change. Expectations of ourselves, whether internally or externally motivated, change according to situation, consequently, we also change our behavior dependent on the different circumstances we are placed in throughout our lives. These may include unexpected interactions with members of our out-group, however, old prejudices do not suddenly disappear when we are simply placed in contact with out-group members. If a situation forces us to “play nice” with those we don’t voluntarily choose to be around, we may have to participate in certain behaviors that do not necessarily feel normal or practiced. In these situations we may have to resolve this dissonance by actually altering our attitudes towards those in our out-group. A shift in attitude possibly means we will place ourselves willingly in contact with members of the out-group again. This repeated contact will hopefully reinforce a positive new attitude about the out-group.
Step number three relies on positive emotions to be effective. Generating affective ties is critical for successful intergroup contact. Think about the last time you were in proximity to someone who made you uncomfortable, angry, or irritated for any number of reasons. This anxiety can precipitate negative reactions, but if the interaction elicits positive emotions, the probability of wanting to be around that person again will increase. According to Pettigrew, those who developed friendships with out-group members “significantly more often reported having felt sympathy and admiration for the out-group.”
When you isolate yourself from an out-group, the tendency is to start believing that your immediate circle, the in-group, knows how to manage the social world best, and anything different is substandard. However, by exposing ourselves to the out-group, changing our behavior, and generating affective ties, in-group reappraisal may occur. Positive interaction may give you new insights into different and unfamiliar norms and customs, which may result in a fresh perspective, perhaps a restructuring of the way you view your in-group, and less provincial view of the out-group.
When we think of the dynamics that create in-groups, out-groups, stereotypes, and prejudices, the images that come to mind are perhaps those of segregation, civil rights, and ethnic conflict. However, these are representations of extreme stereotypes and prejudices on a grand scale. Now take them down to a micro-level, and think about the people in your out-group. They are placed in this second-rate category because of personal perceptions. The perception of our in-group is that we know what is best and believe our methods of navigating the world are most effective. Alternatively, the common view of our created out-group is that there is something fundamentally flawed about how they choose to negotiate the same world. This dichotomy can be difficult, if not impossible, to mentally restructure because it is never easy to accept we do not always have it right. We have created images of certain people, or groups of people, so powerful and persuasive it takes groups of social scientists and theories to understand how change happens under these circumstances.
I had to really contemplate who I put in my out-group category, who I continually choose to avoid. Then I had to be honest with myself about the stereotypes and prejudices I have created about these people and whether or not they are deserved or just me being stubborn about my opinions. As I repeatedly read the four stages of Pettigrew’s proposed process, I realized why he has labeled them a process and not just independent states of being. It takes deliberate time and effort to reevaluate our own in-groups and out-groups and then alter our behavior accordingly. We have to consciously move through the stages, because just doing one is insufficient, all have to be completed to successfully change our stereotypes and prejudices.
I am certainly not preaching that you must be friends with everyone you encounter. I am just trying to relate our own humble in-group, out-group dynamics to those that result in segregation and ethnic conflict. We must take the time to decide that those in our out-group are worth getting to know and then be able to admit to ourselves, and others, if you actually end up liking the people. However, this process won’t begin if you don’t make the choice to desire it.
In this 3-minute talk, cartoonist and educator Jok Church tells a moving story of his own experience developing an unexpected relationship with an out-group member.