By Yair Amichai-Hamburger
Conflicts across the world between communities cause high levels of social and physical devastation as well as a large drain in resources, but how can relations be improved?
Psychologist Gordon Allport realized that a casual contact between rival group members will not change the stereotype that each holds on the other, particularly if there are status differences between the groups. In fact, he showed that such meetings actually serve to strengthen the existing stereotypes. Allport believed if certain conditions were met, meetings between rival groups could successfully lead to change. Under these terms both groups would send representatives of equal importance; the two groups would cooperate on a goal that is perceived as important for both of them; and representatives of both groups would be endorsed by their own official authorities. These conditions have become collectively known as the contact hypothesis.
Although meetings underpinned by the contact hypothesis have been fairly successful, I believe that it has several severe limitations. First, the practical stipulations are hard to achieve. For example, it is often hard to find participants of equal status. A series of contact meetings between warring factions may be complicated and expensive to arrange, particularly when a third mutually acceptable location has to be used. Second, face-to-face meetings with “the enemy” are almost certain to provoke anxiety among participants. These anxious feelings are likely to cause participants to “close-up” and make them unable to see the other side in a new way, thus unwittingly existing stereotypes on the both sides are reinforced. The third problem is what psychologists refer to as generalization. In other words, the contact meeting may be successful but participants may not generalize from their positive feelings towards the participants from the other side to their whole group, or they believe that other side’s participants, nice as they may be, are not representative of the group as a whole.
I believe that the Internet can provide answers to the three challenges mentioned above. First, practicality: when the contact takes place online rather than face to face, it is much easier and significantly cheaper to organize. The Internet also goes a long way to solving another practical problem, that of equal status among participants. Since the Internet does not contain visual cues, it is impossible to know whether your opposite number is wearing a Rolex watch or is 20 years younger than you and much better looking.
Second, anxiety: the apprehension that people feel when they sit together with “the other” is significantly reduced when the contact takes place over the web. Moreover, the Internet allows people to meet from a place that they feel comfortable, this may be even their own living room, thus further reducing the anxiety. Third, the Internet also assists with the lack of generalization from the individual to the group, since it allows people to emphasize their group identity. For example, members may tag the group identity to the participant every time he or she makes a contribution to the meeting. Such tools in online contact will enhance the chances of a positive contact, which will effect the whole perception of the “other group.”
It seems that the Internet, with its almost ubiquitous accessibility, may have significant advantages over the traditional forms of contact. It is also important to stress that such digital contact should not take place in a wholly unstructured setting. I believe that the supervision of a social psychologist that has expertise in group dynamics is imperative. This will help to avoid flaming, that is people using the web, not as tool to improve intergroup relations, but rather to launch vicious attacks on the other side. The skills of the supervisor are important to ensure the involvement and commitment of participants.
I believe that this type of contact will have a tremendous impact on reducing many of the major disputes between communities throughout the world. For example, initial contact meetings have taken place between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. These are first steps. I believe that in the future we will see more and more online platforms aimed at reducing intergroup conflict and improving intergroup relations throughout the world.
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Image Credit: Human Network Connection on White Surface. Photo by Chromatika Multimedia, iStockphoto.