The Journal of Social Psychology , 1983, 119, 3-10.



University of New South Wales, Australia


The American version of the contact hypothesis as it is usually applied to race relations is that the more you get to know blacks, the better you will like them. British and Australian research, however, seems to support the opposite generalization. To propose either a negative or a positive characteristic effect of contact per se does, however, appear almost inevitably simplistic. A random doorstep study of 200 Australians was carried out which compared degree of contact and favorableness of attitude towards a number of community subgroups-working mothers, divorced people, nude sunbathers, and coeducational school attenders-as well as towards blacks. Only in the case of divorcees and nude sunbathers was there any relationship between degree of contact and attitude. Contact as such, therefore, may not have a consistent effect.


According to the contact hypothesis, the more one gets to know personally individual members of a minority group, the less likely one is to be prejudiced against that minority group. In the field of race relations, the hypothesis is a corollary of the stereotyping theory -- that one dislikes Jews or blacks because one has been socialized into holding simplistic, false, and derogatory opinions about them. If such opinions are false, then experience should presumably tend to correct them. Recent support for the contact hypothesis seems to be most associated with the names of Berry in Canada and Amir in Israel (2, 3, S, 13), but the early evidence was American (29), and American studies are still strongly supportive (8, 24, 28).

Most interestingly, however, there is also an inverse contact hypothesis which finds its supporters principally in Britain, Australia, and South Africa (7, 9, 11, 15, 16, 21, 22, 27). According to this hypothesis, the more one comes in contact with blacks, the more prejudiced one becomes. The arrival of large numbers of blacks in Britain since 1945 has coincided with an upsurge of both individual and official British racism. Although once proud of her open-door immigration policy towards people of all races, Britain has now enacted immigration restrictions specifically designed to prevent further black immigration.

Overall, this largely trans-Atlantic conflict of findings might seem to support the sort of hypothesis most associated with the work of Rosenthal (25): what social scientists find reflects their group values. Guilt about slavery in America causes middle-class beliefs about blacks to be optimistic, whereas resentment of uninvited guests (postwar colored immigration) in Britain causes middle-class beliefs about blacks to be suspicious. Since at least half of Britain's blacks are of basically the same race as America's blacks (negroids of slave descent), it seems on the whole unlikely that it is the characteristics of the blacks themselves which are responsible for the differing findings. British research quite commonly aggregates all blacks, of whatever origin, into one category (4). This suggests at least an expectation that the findings for South Asians (Indians) and for West Indians (negroes) will be similar.

Although some sort of Rosenthal hypothesis may finally be necessary to explain the differing conclusions reached by social scientists on the two sides of the Atlantic, it is to be hoped that a closer examination of the data on which both sides rely suggests that the findings are less in conflict. On the British side, Studlar (30) has reanalyzed the data from one of the major British studies and concludes that contact is in fact unimportant as an influence on racial attitudes. On the American side, the findings about wartime contact with negroes, recorded in The American Soldier, have been subjected to a critique by Sanders and Bielby (26), who suggest that the data are simply inconclusive. A related study from South Africa by Nieuwoudt (16) found that when white South Africans of Afrikaner and English origins served together as South African Defence Force conscripts, the attitudes towards the "English" among the Afrikaners were on the whole left unmoved, but that the English attitudes towards the Afrikaners worsened. This is certainly not an unequivocal finding. Closer examination of the Amir studies also reveals fairly equivocal findings. Amir and Garti (2) found that only Ss without previous contact showed attitude change in response to contact, while Amir et al. (3) found that only in some specific situations was interethnic contact beneficial. The overall result, based on their sample of 1411 Israeli soldiers, was that contact had no effect.

Findings of no relationship between degree of contact and prejudice have also been reported from Australia (19). The study in Canada by Kalin and Berry (13) concerned geographical mobility rather than contact as such. They found lesser prejudice in geographically mobile people. This could however have been the effect of many factors other than their degree of contact with other ethnic groups. Mobile people, for example, may be more self-confident, and self-confidence may lead to less fear and suspicion of others in general. Perhaps the most startling finding of "no effect" of contact on racial attitudes was that white South Africans did not differ from white Australians on attitude to blacks (10, 22), even though the South African whites are outnumbered 5 to 1 by blacks, while Australian whites outnumber blacks by something like 100 to 1. Despite apartheid, whites in South Africa have numerous contacts with blacks (most homes have black servants), while Australians have very little contact of any kind with Aborigines. Yet attitudes do not differ in the two countries. Some possible explanations of this finding have been provided elsewhere (22).

Although cursory, the above review suggests that there are good reasons for believing that neither version of the contact hypothesis may be true. There may be no overall effect of contact in either direction. The present study is designed to test this possibility. It takes its cue from an American study by Reed (24) in which the effect of contact was examined on variables other than race. He found that contact reduced hostility of American Southerners towards Northerners. Stereotyping can quite obviously affect other than racial groups, and it may well be that racial attitudes have become too sensitive both socially and politically to be examined directly. If, therefore, the importance of stereotyping in attitudes generally can be determined, an inferential extension to the field of race relations may be more convincing than a direct investigation. On the assumption that stereotyping is an important element in the attitudes that people hold, it could be predicted that contact with any subcategory of the population (be it a minority or a majority) that is not clearly antisocial would improve attitudes towards that group. This is also the hypothesis advanced by Homans (12) from his studies in industrial psychology. He found that associations formed at the workplace often extended after hours and concluded that association per se tended to produce positive affect. Some skepticism about the generality of this relationship, however, may be in order, particularly in view of such folk wisdom as is involved in the saying "Familiarity breeds contempt."


The subcategories of the population were as follows: working mothers, divorced people, former pupils at coeducational schools, nude sunbathers, and Aborigines. Although the effect of contact with Aborigines (Australia's native black race) on attitudes towards Aborigines had previously been examined (19), that study suffered from some methodological doubts; hence further data seemed potentially useful even though the major focus of the present study was elsewhere. Of the groups chosen for examination, only one (attenders of coeducational schools) was chosen as a majority group.

Both degree of contact and attitude were assessed by single public-opinion-poll-type questions. Although such questions have their limitations, there is now good evidence (18) that they produce both reliable and valid data. The contact questions were designed to be answered simply by a "yes" or a "no" but they were worded to produce a distribution between the two answers. The concern with obtaining a distribution seemed particularly important with the putative majority group (coeducational school attenders) as almost everybody could be assumed to have had extensive contact with them. The actual questions were as follows: 1. Have you ever met and talked to an Aborigine? 2. Have you ever known well someone who was divorced? 3. Have you ever known well a young family where the mother went out to work? 4. Did you yourself ever go to a coeducational school? 5. Have you ever been on a beach where nude sunbathers were present?

The attitudes were assessed by questions with a three-point answer modelled on those of Wilson's (33) Conservatism scale. They consisted, in extreme cases, of only one word (e.g., "Divorce") and people were asked simply whether they approved or disapproved of the things described in the given list of such words and phrases. This format may seem ambiguous and imprecise, but Wilson (33) has produced evidence to support his contention that such items are in fact superior to more conventional ones. His scale is one of the very few which has been repeatedly used (6, 23).

The sample was obtained in a random doorstep cluster survey of 200 Australians living in the Sydney metropolitan area. Cluster sampling is the usual method of the public opinion polls and there were on the present occasion 40 clusters of five people each.


Because the answers to single questions are seldom normally distributed, all relationships on the present occasion were assessed by chi square. The values obtained were 2.63 for the relationship between contact with and approval of Aborigines, 7.66 for divorcees, 1.01 for working mothers, 1.47 for coeducation and 11.06 for nude sunbathers. Degrees of freedom were 2 in each case so only in the case of the divorcees and nude sunbathers was there a significant relationship between contact and attitude. The frequencies underlying the two significant relationships are as follows: for those with contact, 63% and 49% approved, respectively, divorce and nude sunbathing; the corresponding figures for those without contact were 39% and 26%. They imply that contact with divorcees and nude sunbathers was associated with more approving attitudes towards them.

The concern over obtaining a distribution for attitudes towards the majority group proved unfounded. In fact, 55% of the sample had never been to a coeducational school. This reflects the fact that, although coeducation is very much the rule in the State of New South Wales today, it is only a development of fairly recent years and a majority of the sample had been educated under the old system of single-sex schools. Contrary to intention, all groups studied turned out to be minority groups.


With only two out of five relationships significant, there was clearly no general or typical effect of contact in the present study. There is the further difficulty that with the significant relationships the direction of causation could on some occasions be two-way. People who had come into contact with nude sunbathers (44% of the sample) may have been led to such contact by their prior approval for the idea.

If, then, the improving effect of contact is evidence of prior stereotyping, only in the case of divorce and nude sunbathing was stereotyping significantly present. By the same reasoning, attitudes to blacks, coeducation, and working mothers were not significantly influenced by stereotyping.

The present study, then, supports neither version of the contact hypothesis. The implication of the present results is that to understand may be to forgive, but knowing any group better does not necessarily make one like them better.

Nonetheless, it is not possible to dismiss all the studies that have purported to support either version of the contact hypothesis. The British studies in particular are numerous and have the virtue of not being confined to the laboratory or classroom (11, 21, 32). A possible resolution of the conflicting results is that suggested by Allport (1) or Suedfeld (31): It all depends on the situation in which the contact takes place. In some situations, contact may have a beneficial influence on attitudes, while in others it may not. If this is true, only a very heavily modified and qualified contact hypothesis could be entertained. It would be a considerable challenge to theory to specify just what the beneficial situations are and why they are in fact beneficial. Allport (1) himself saw the circumstances reported in The American Soldier as an example of such a situation; but the subsequent work, both in criticism of The American Soldier, and with other Army samples (2, 16) would call this into question.

Another, simpler possibility may be to refer once again to the gap between attitudes and behavior (17, 20). Such a gap has long been known to exist in the field of race relations (14) and may in that field be particularly intractable. For instance, white South African attitudes may not be particularly negative towards blacks but white South African behavior clearly is. Even though courtesy between the races is common in South Africa, the critical white behavior is the institutional arrangements they support when voting. South African political parties are various and there would be no problem in voting for a more liberal party if the majority of the whites chose to do so. In fact, however, it is the stern (though not the sternest) supporters of apartheid who repeatedly receive overwhelming support. The high degree of contact with blacks experienced by South African whites is certainly strong support for the inverse contact hypothesis if it is behavior rather than attitudes that we are interested in. What is probably the highest correlation ever reported in the race relations literature also leads to conclusions similar to those derived from the South African situation. Mitchell (15), in his study of voting patterns in the Australian constitutional referendum designed to give blacks (Aborigines) the vote, found a correlation of .90 between the number of "No" votes cast and the density of Aboriginal population in the area concerned. Voting behavior again gave amazingly strong support to the inverse contact hypothesis. The more that white Australians get to know Aborigines, the more negative some of their behaviors at least are towards them.

At its best the contact hypothesis is simplistic because it tends to embody a demonstrably (20) false assumption that what is true of attitudes is true of behavior. Moreover, the relationship between contact and attitudes alone is far from consistent. The circumstances in which contact leads to positive attitude change remain to be teased out, but there is clearly no simple, typical effect of contact per se, at least as far as attitudes are concerned. As far as behavior is concerned, the weight of evidence would at least appear to be in support of the British version of the hypothesis.


1. ALLPORT, G. W. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1954.

2. AMIR, Y. & GARTI, C. Situational and personal influence on attitude change following ethnic contact. Internat. J. Intercult. Relat., 1977, 1, 58-75.

3. AMIR, Y., BIZMAN, A., & RIVNER, M. Effects of interethnic contact on friendship choices in the military. J. Cross-Cult. Psychol., 1973, 4, 361-373.

4. BAGLEY, C., & VERMA., G. K. Racial Prejudice, the Individual and Society. Farnborough, England: Saxon House, 1979.

5. BERRY, J. W.., & KALIN, R. Reciprocity of interethnic attitudes in a multicultural society. Internat. J. Intercult. Relat., 1979, 3, 99-112.

6. BOYCE, H. W. The measurement of conservatism. The Wilson- Patterson scale: Bibliography and abstracts. Paper published privately by its author, at State College of Victoria, 336 Glenferrie Rd., Malvern, Victoria, Australia, 1976.

7. BUTLER, D., & STOKES, D. Political Change in Britain. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1969.

8. BUTLER, J. S., & WILSON, K. L. The American Soldier revisited: Race relations and the military. Soc. Sci. Quart., 1978, 59, 451-457.

9. CHAPLES, E. A., SEDLACEK, W. E., & MIYARES, J. The attitudes of urban tertiary students to Aborigines and New Australians. Politics, 1978, 13, 167-174.

10. HEAVEN, P. C. L., & Ray, J. J. Non-authoritarian Afrikaners. In P. C. L. Heaven (Ed.), Authoritarianism: South African Studies. Bloemfontein, South Africa: DeVilliers, 1980.

11. HIRO, D. Black British, White British. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971.

12. HOMANS, G. The Human Group. London: Routledge, 1951.

13. KALIN, R., & BERRY, J. W. Geographic mobility and ethnic tolerance. J. Soc. Psychol., 1980, 112, 129-134.

14. LA PIERE, R. Attitudes and actions. Social Forces, 1934, 13, 230-237.

15. MITCHELL, I. S. Epilogue to a referendum. Australian J. Soc. Issues, 1968, 3, 9-12.

16. NIEUWOUDT, J. M. Etniese kontak en houdingsverandering. Suid-Afrikaanse Sielkundige, 1976, 6, 1-14.

17. RAY, J.J. (1971) Ethnocentrism: Attitudes and behaviour. Australian Quarterly, 43, 89-97.

18. RAY, J.J. (1974) Are trait self-ratings as valid as multi-item scales? A study of achievement motivation. Australian Psychologist 9, 44-49.

19. RAY, J.J. (1974) Are racists ethnocentric? Ch. 46 in RAY, J.J. (1974) Conservatism as heresy Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co.

20. RAY, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.

21. RAY, J.J. (1978) Determinants of racial attitudes. Patterns of Prejudice 12(5), 27-32.

22. RAY, J.J. (1980) Racism and authoritarianism among white South Africans. Journal of Social Psychology, 110, 29-37.

23. RAY, J.J. (1981) Measuring achievement motivation by immediate emotional reactions. J. Social Psychology, 113, 85-93.

24. REED, J. S. Getting to know you: The contact hypothesis applied to the sectional beliefs and attitudes of white Southerners. Soc. Forces, 1980, 59, 123-135.

25. ROSENTHAL, R. Experimenter Effects in Behavioral Research. New York: Irvington, 1976.

26. SANDERS, J. M., & BIELBY, W. T. Revising The American Soldier revisited. Soc. Sci. Quart., 1980, 61, 333-336.

27. SCHAEFER, R. T. Regional differences in prejudice. Region. Stud., 1975, 8, 13.

28. STEPHAN, W. G., & ROSENFELD, D. Effects of desegregation on racial attitudes. J. Personal. & Soc. Psychol., 1978, 36, 795-804.

29. STOUFFER, S. A., SUCHMAN, E. A., DEVINNEY, L. C., STAR, S. A., & WILLIAMS, R. M. The American Soldier (Vol. 1). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U:P., 1949.

30. STUDLAR, D. T. Social context and attitudes toward coloured immigrants. Brit. J. Sociol., 1977, 28, 168-184.

31. SUEDFELD, P. Social Processes. Dubuque, Iowa: W. C. Brown, 1966.

32. TAYLOR, S. A reply to Whiteley. Brit. J. Polit. Sci., 1980, 10, 268-270.

33. WILSON, R. S. The Psychology of Conservatism. London: Academic, 1973.


A reference that should have been alluded to above is one by Hartmann & Husbands (1972). In using their scale of white attitudes to coloured people, these authors found that white people expressed more hostility towards coloured immigrants in Britain if they lived in 'immigrant' areas than if they lived in all-white areas.


Hartmann. P & Husbands, C. (1972) A British scale for measuring white attitudes to coloured people. Race 14, 195-204

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