Imagined Contact Hypothesis

The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t just a tough time in world history – it was also specifically a dividing and polarizing time in American history. The country was gearing up for one of the most contentious elections that anyone could remember. Divisions were drawn between Democrats and Republicans; “pro-maskers” and “anti-maskers,” people who waited for the COVID-19 vaccination and those who only believed it would cause more harm. And what’s worse, there was little contact between these two groups. The isolation and separation of people to their individual homes may have saved lives and reduced the spread of COVID-19, but it definitely pushed us further apart. 

America is not new to groups being separated. From the 18th century until the 1960s, the country was segregated. Entire cities were divided, and not just in the soda fountains or the bathrooms. White people might live or go to school on one side of the highway (like they did in Austin, Texas) while people of color lived and went to school on the other side. 

We know how dangerous this type of segregation and separation is. Warring political parties get nothing done to help their constituents. People who are considered “lesser” than the privileged or more powerful groups face a higher risk of discrimination, bullying, or downright violence. Separating different groups based on race, sex, political party, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity is simply harmful. 

Psychologists know that, despite the harm caused by ingroups and outgroups, this has been a part of human existence since our species first appeared on Earth. They also know, through decades of research, that there is a way to reduce ingroup and outgroup biases and create a society where people from all groups can live and work together without threats of violence or fighting. 

And this solution isn’t as complicated as you might think. In fact, it starts with just thinking. 

Intergroup Contact Theory 

Before we talk about thinking your way into a more inclusive world, let’s talk about Intergroup Contact Theory. In 1954, Gordon Allport introduced this idea in his book, The Nature of Prejudice. The idea is simple: contact between two groups could reduce prejudice between the people within those groups. 

This idea doesn’t discriminate. It can work to reduce racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, or ableism. And although it sounds simple, you can probably think of some examples from your real life in which a family member or a friend changed their opinions about minority groups after interacting with someone in that group. Maybe a friend’s parents came around to support gay marriage after your friend came out to them, or a colleague changed their opinion on the existence of whether privilege exists after talking to someone who doesn’t have said privilege. 

But even if you can’t think of an example yourself, psychology has your back. Plenty of studies on intergroup contact theory show that positive contact between people in different groups can help to reduce prejudice. In 2003, for example, studies showed that white athletes who played team sports with Black athletes held less prejudice than white athletes who played individual sports. Large analyses of studies on this topic show that even when contact is “unstructured,” that contact is likely to reduce prejudice among all “outgroups,” including the LGBTQ community, people of color, and people with disabilities. 

It seems that the best way to reduce any prejudice you have is to go out and have contact with the people you have prejudices about! 

What About Negative Contact? 

Of course, you might find yourself thinking about all the times your family got in Facebook fights with someone on the other side of the political aisle. It’s important to note that while psychologists believe that negative contact can be more powerful than positive contact, positive contact is more likely to happen in person. Intentionally going out into the world, meeting new people, and talking to them about their experiences is the best way to reduce prejudice and become a more inclusive person.

This Isn’t Always Possible 

This wasn’t always a possibility in the COVID-19 pandemic. The whole point of lockdowns was to stay home and keep everybody safe! Plus, decades of segregation, redlining and other factors don’t always encourage intermingling between ingroups and outgroups. You may not know or hang out with people who have a different religion than you, who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, or who are of a different race or social class than you. So what do you do then? Well, you might be surprised to know that just imagining these positive interactions can help reduce prejudice, too. 

Imagined Contact Theory 

That’s right! In 2008, researchers took the Intergroup Contact Theory one step further. What would happen if people simply imagined that they were having positive interactions with someone in an “outgroup?”  

They attempted to answer the question like this: researchers separated different groups of participants into two groups. One group was instructed to think about a positive interaction with an elderly person. The other group was instructed to think about an empty field. Once the exercise was over, the researchers measured the potential for prejudice against the elderly among the participants. 

As it turned out, the groups who had imagined the positive interaction with the elderly reported lower prejudice against the elderly than the groups who were told just to think about an empty field. There were no elderly people involved in the study – just imagination. 

Through further studies of imagined contact theory, researchers have found that simply imagining positive interactions with people can help you improve your attitude, increase your desire for contact with others, and improve how you work within groups. Having trouble with a group project at school? Imagine it going well before you head to class. Worried about how you will interact with your family during your next Thanksgiving dinner? Imagine an evening of laughs and good conversation. Frustrated at people who might be on the other side of the aisle than you? Picture yourselves sitting down and having a conversation in which you both see eye to eye. You might just be more willing to have that conversation. 

The Power of Imagination 

Sure, this can sound pretty crazy, but the mind does some pretty crazy things. In fact, many psychologists would agree that this exercise is so powerful because the mind has trouble knowing the difference between what is real and what is imagined. We scream and cry when we have nightmares. Reliving trauma in our minds can be just as harmful as experiencing it for the first time. Imagination isn’t just a silly thing that we do when we are children or we are bored – the thoughts we have can make an impact. 

One way to look at the Imagined Contact Theory is to think about manifestation. When we want to manifest something, we picture it over and over in our minds. We repeat affirmations that we don’t necessarily believe. And while picturing a new car in our minds won’t make a car appear in front of us, it will put us in the right mindset to work for that car, save money for that car, and look for opportunities to get that car. 

Imagined contact theory can do the same thing. Simply imagining a positive interaction with anyone won’t change who they are. But when you are prepared to have a positive interaction with someone, you might let small things go, give people the benefit of the doubt, or try to see things from their point of view. We do these things for the people we love – why can’t we do them for the people that we used to judge? 

Guided Meditations Can Help 

This can still feel like a strange practice to try. If you don’t know where to begin, try out a loving-kindness meditation. This type of Buddhist meditation asks you to send love and positivity out to yourself, people you love, people you don’t always love, and all people of the world. This isn’t always easy to do, but starting by sending love to people that you already love can help you ease into this practice and spread the love even further. 

The same approach can be taken with imagined contact. First, think about walking through a nice park on a warm, sunny day. Imagine that you come into contact with friends or family that you love. Picture a lovely conversation between all of you – everyone is laughing and smiling. Next, picture in your mind that someone in the group introduces someone who you might be skeptical about at first. But everyone in the group is accepting and welcoming of them. As the conversation continues, all of you laugh together. Everyone keeps an open mind, shares, and has positive feelings at the end of the day. 

See, how hard was that? This simple exercise can help you before interacting with anyone who might make you uncomfortable or nervous for whatever reason. Manifest positive interactions with imagined contact!

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.