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Some very short reflections on social psychology

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been able to understand the ‘logic’ of prejudice: how anyone could justify the derogation of others simply on the basis of their culture, gender, religion, or race. Of course, the causes of prejudice are many and varied, and we need contributions from many different disciplines – history, politics, economics – to fully understand what they are, and how they can be addressed. For me, however, there was always something deep in the human psyche that cut to the heart of prejudice. As well as the systemic (economic), structural (organisational) and social (policy) factors, there seemed to be something that linked all three; something that shapes how we perceive these external forces; something that determines whether we react to them with tolerance or intolerance. It turns out that the study of how we understand, and react, to these social forces, is precisely what social psychology is about.

So I leapt in to the field. In my early explorations, it didn’t take long for me to stumble upon Henri Tajfel’s famous ‘minimal group paradigm’ (MGP) studies, conducted in the 1970s. Tafjel was driven by that same desire to understand the nature of prejudice. His MGP was an experimental ‘game’ that revealed the utter irrationality of prejudice. In the MGP there was no possible gain for people to favour their own group: everyone was anonymous, and the identities involved were explicitly artificial and meaningless. Nonetheless, under these most minimal of social conditions (i.e., the simple division of people in to “us” and “them”) people still showed prejudice.

What emerged from these studies was a whole area of psychology that revealed the motives and processes that drive peoples’ prejudices. Discovering that it was a basic tendency to categorize that lies at the heart of prejudice had huge implications. It meant that to tackle prejudice we have to not only address the social, the economic and the political: we also need to tackle the psychological.

Armed with this insight I set off on (what became) a 20-year quest to develop an educational and training initiative to tackle the cognitive foundations of prejudice. The result was ‘Imagined Intergroup Contact’, a mental simulation technique that models interactions between people from different cultures and groups. The reasoning was that in the absence of actual contact, people might imagine that encounters with other groups would be negative – and develop negative stereotypes accordingly. If that is the case, then perhaps we can reverse this idea by getting people to imagine the opposite – positive outgroup encounters. Early results supported the idea that simply imagining contact could be useful as a way of reducing prejudice, and promoting an interest in engaging positively with other groups. There have now been well over 100 studies of imagined contact, involving thousands of participants. These studies have found the approach to be effective in tackling prejudice against a whole range of groups, including those formed on the basis of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.

It meant that to tackle prejudice we have to not only address the social, the economic and the political: we also need to tackle the psychological.

The technique has been hugely successful at promoting more positive group-based interactions, reducing prejudice, and empowering individuals with confidence and self-efficacy. It’s such a simple idea, but one with so much power and potential. To see it grow from a flash of inspiration to a research programme to a multi-lab global endeavour is immensely rewarding. Most importantly, I passionately believe imagined contact has the power to change peoples’ lives for the better. Seeing a scientific advance like this begin to be adopted in education and industry gives a real and important sense of meaning to what we do.

And the future? What’s so exciting about research is you really don’t know what’s around the corner – there are so many possibilities. I do strongly believe there is a need for us to better connect basic science with application, to build stronger pathways to impact, and harness scientific advances to effect real and positive change in the societies in which we live. It’s also true that research in all areas is increasingly multi-disciplinary. I think this trend will continue; for me this means an exciting, closer integration between psychological, economic, and social policy approaches. For Imagined Contact research, this can only be a good thing. Cross-fertilization of ideas will help us build a better picture of the processes that lead to the formation of prejudiced attitudes, and through this understanding, will help us develop new interventions to tackle this most pressing of social problems.

Inter-disciplinarily, however, does not mean, and should not mean, complexity. Complexity can be beguiling – a complex idea, one that is difficult to understand, can seem correct precisely because it is difficult to understand. Getting people to believe that a simple idea is sometimes the best idea can be a challenge. But if developing Imagined Contact has taught me anything it’s that sometimes the simplest ideas can be the most powerful.

Finally, none of us must be afraid to suggest new ideas, even if they go against received wisdom. All science needs new perspectives, and this is what makes working in these areas so thrilling and rewarding. Sometimes you’ll be wrong, sometimes you’ll be half right … but perhaps sometimes you’ll have something that no-one else has ever thought of before. Whatever your discipline and whatever your field, your ideas could well be the next big thing.

Featured image credit: Crowd by tinabold. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Karen

    Thanks for an interesting perspective, and best wishes for your research. One thing that feeds prejudice is propaganda, which is used to manipulate people and gain power. There are lots of examples in politics at present. I always wonder why propaganda works – why do people want to believe negative things about ‘others’? Do you have any insights?

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