Recent studies using sophisticated brain imaging techniques have offered an unprecedented glimpse into the psychology of prejudice, and the results aren’t always pretty. In research by Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske, for instance, white study participants were shown photographs of white and black faces while a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner captured their brain activity. When asked a seemingly harmless question about the age of the face shown, participants’ brain activity spiked in a region known as the amygdala, which is involved in the fear response—it lights up when we encounter threats.
Yet when participants were asked to guess the favorite vegetable of each individual pictured, amygdala activity was no more stimulated by black faces than it was by white ones. In other words, when the study participants had to group people into a social category—even if it was by age rather than race—their brains reacted more negatively to black faces than to white faces. But when they were encouraged to see everyone as individuals with their own tastes and feelings—tastes and feelings just like the ones they have themselves—their reactions to black faces and white faces didn’t differ. Their fear dissolved as they no longer saw the black faces as others.
This research shows how it’s possible to shift perceptions of in-groups and out-groups in a lab. But how do we do this in real life? One of social psychology’s most influential theories about incorporating others into the in-group is called the contact hypothesis. Formulated by Harvard social psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1940s, the theory itself is straightforward: Increasing exposure to out-group members will improve attitudes toward that group and decrease prejudice and stereotyping. By no means an idealist, Allport recognized that contact between groups can also devolve into conflict and further reinforce negative attitudes. In fact, he argued that contact would bring positive results only when four specific conditions were in place for the groups involved:
-the support of legitimate authorities;
-a sense of interdependency that provides an incentive to cooperate; and
-a sense of having of equal status.