The irony of harmony: Why positive interactions may sometimes be negative

February 2, 2009

History abounds with examples of dramatic social change occurring when a disadvantaged group finally stands up and says "Enough!". By recognizing their inequalities, members of disadvantaged groups can mobilize and attempt to bring about change. Traditional methods of improving relations between different racial and ethnic groups have focused on creating harmony between those groups. For example, "contact theory" proposes that bringing members of opposing groups together by emphasizing the things they have in common can achieve harmony by increasing positive feelings towards the other group. However, research has shown that positive contact not only changes attitudes, but can also make disadvantaged group members less aware of the inequality in power and resources between the groups.

Is it possible that there can be too much of a good thing? Psychologist Tamar Saguy from Yale University, along with her colleagues Nicole Tausch (Cardiff University), John Dovidio (Yale University) and Felicia Pratto (University of Connecticut) examined the negative effects of positive contact between groups, first in the laboratory and then in the real world.

In the first experiment, students were divided into either advantaged or disadvantaged groups, with the advantaged groups in charge of distributing course credits at the end of the experiment. Before the course credits were doled out, members of the groups interacted, with instructions to focus on either the similarities or differences between the two groups.

The results, described in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, revealed that following the similarity-focused interactions, members of the disadvantaged group had increased expectations that the advantaged group members would fairly distribute the course credits. These expectations were the result of overall improved attitudes towards the advantaged group and reduced attention of the disadvantaged group members to the inequalities between the groups. However, these expectations proved to be unrealistic- the advantaged group discriminated against the disadvantaged group when handing out course credits, regardless of the type of conversations they had engaged in at the start of the experiment.

The psychologists next wanted to see if this effect occurs in the real world. They surveyed Israeli-Arabs (a disadvantaged minority group) about their attitudes towards Jews. As in the previous experiment, more positive contact (assessed by the number of Jewish friends the Israeli-Arabs had) resulted in improved attitudes towards Jews and increased perceptions of Jews as fair towards Arabs. In addition, although in general Israeli-Arabs are strongly motivated towards social change and greater equality, positive contact with Jews was related to a decreased support for change. The results of the two studies suggest that positive contact with majority groups may result in disadvantaged groups being less likely to support social change- with improved attitudes towards the advantaged groups and reduced attention to social inequality, the disadvantaged groups may become less motivated to promote change.

These findings have important implications, not just for global diplomacy, but also in our everyday encounters. The authors note that positive contact between groups does not necessarily have to undermine efforts towards equality. Rather, they suggest that "encounters that emphasize both common connections and the problem of unjust group inequalities may promote intergroup understanding as well as recognition of the need for change." The authors conclude that such mixed-content encounters can bring members of all groups together and "perhaps motivate them to eliminate social inequalities."

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Why the Ivy League voted to end full-contact tackling practice

Related Stories

Why the Ivy League voted to end full-contact tackling practice

March 8, 2016
Football fans see the hard hits every weekend in the fall. But that's just during the games. What about all the blocks and tackles in practice, all week long, all season long? Those countless collisions, and the repeated ...

Patient navigators appear to improve colorectal cancer screening rate in ethnically diverse patients

May 23, 2011
Among low-income patients who are black or whose primary language is not English, patient navigators may help improve colorectal cancer (CRC) screening rates, according to a report in the May 23 issue of Archives of Internal ...

Social contact, regular exercise key to living longer

February 17, 2014
Social contact and regular exercise are key to aging well and living a longer life, according to newly presented research.

Surrogacy—the impossible dream of a fair trade baby

June 2, 2017
While western couples get their longed-for child, Indian surrogate mothers are left with a feeling of having sacrificed more than they have gained. Surrogacy can never become a win-win situation, according to anthropologist ...

Women's educational attainment and origin are risk factors in abortions

February 14, 2017
A study conducted by the UPV/EHU's Social Determinants of Health and Demographic Change (OPIK) research group analysed the voluntary pregnancy termination rate and the differences between the immigrant and the native population ...

First UK trial seeks to reduce challenging behaviour in pre-schoolers with learning disabilities

July 21, 2017
Disability charity Contact a Family and UCL are launching a national clinical trial – the first of its kind in the UK – that aims to reduce behaviour that challenges in very young children with learning disabilities.

Recommended for you

Suicidal thoughts rapidly reduced with ketamine, finds study

December 14, 2017
Ketamine was significantly more effective than a commonly used sedative in reducing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). They also found that ketamine's ...

Do bullies have more sex?

December 14, 2017
Adolescents who are willing to exploit others for personal gain are more likely to bully and have sex than those who score higher on a measure of honesty and humility. This is according to a study in Springer's journal Evolutionary ...

Eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally

December 14, 2017
Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new Canadian study shows.

Children's screen-time guidelines too restrictive, according to new research

December 14, 2017
Digital screen use is a staple of contemporary life for adults and children, whether they are browsing on laptops and smartphones, or watching TV. Paediatricians and scientists have long expressed concerns about the impact ...

The iceberg model of self-harm

December 14, 2017
Researchers have created a model of self-harm that shows high levels of the problem in the community, especially in young girls, and the need for school-based prevention measures.

Anti-stress compound reduces obesity and diabetes

December 13, 2017
For the first time, scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich could prove that a stress protein found in muscle has a diabetes promoting effect. This finding could pave the way to a completely new treatment ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.