Exposing individuals to information about ingroup members with outgroup friends

The studies by Wright et al. (1997, Study 3) and Wout et al. (2010) suggest that one key point when seeking to implement extended contact is to find ways to expose individuals to information depicting positive cross-group relations (Wout et al., 2010). However, this may be difficult to realize practically, since information (for instance, in real Facebook profiles) can be mixed. For instance, individuals may have diverse social networks but follow racist posts, or they may have homogeneous social networks but post comments that indicate openness to racial diversity. Therefore, the way this is done is of great importance and can have distinct theoretical as well as practical implications.

Gomez, Tropp, Vazquez, Voci, and Hewstone (2018) conducted five studies (two with high school students, two with adult samples, one with university students), providing Spanish individuals with information that ingroup members have immigrant friends, while also looking at whether having such friends is normative. Specifically, participants were presented with a fictitious article from a national newspaper, describing research supported by a Spanish university and the Spanish Ministry of Education. The article reported the results of a fictitious survey, indicating (depending on the experimental condition) that Spanish people have no immigrant friends (no extended contact), one or two immigrant friends (low extended contact), or more than two immigrant friends (high extended contact). Social norms were manipulated orthogonally, providing (depending on the study) more or less consensus about the extent to which the ingroup or the outgroup supports having immigrant friends. Results revealed interactive effects of knowing that ingroup members have outgroup friends and perceiving higher ingroup consensus, such that effects on outgroup attitudes were more positive when participants became aware of some contact between ingroup and outgroup members and also perceived consensus from the ingroup. Importantly, these effects were not limited to outgroup attitudes but extended to a behavioral measure of money donation to immigrant organizations.

The study by Gomez et al. (2018), along with meta-analytic findings by S. Zhou et al. (2019) that indicate that perceived rather than actual extended contact is especially effective in reducing prejudice, point to the importance of being (or becoming) aware of ingroup friends’ cross-group friendships (for the importance of the outgroup’s stance on intergroup contact, see Stathi, Di Bernardo, Vezzali, Pendleton, & Tropp, 2020).

Asking individuals to share intergroup experiences

Wright et al. (1997, Study 3) suggests that one way to apply extended contact can be to ask individuals to disclose positive cross-group experiences to ingroup friends. We conducted a field intervention building on this idea, namely that individuals should share with the ingroup their positive experiences with outgroup members. Specifically, we realized an extended contact intervention focused on the relationship between Italians and immigrants among Italian elementary and high school children in the context of Northern Italy (Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Capozza, & Visintin, 2015).

In order to construct this intervention, we addressed two basic points related to extended contact principles. First, a rather implicit assumption of extended contact research is that individuals are aware of the diverse social network of their ingroup friends. However, there are reasons to believe this may not be always the case. Ingroup members with outgroup friends may violate ingroup norms (Clack, Dixon, & Tredoux, 2005), leading ingroup members to evaluate negatively and avoid individuals with cross-group friends (Eller, Gomez, et al., 2017; Jacoby-Senghor, Sinclair, & Smith, 2015; Stark, 2015). Therefore, individuals may be less motivated to reveal positive relationships with outgroup members (H. Wang, Kao, & Joyner, 2006). In addition to being liked less when showing they have outgroup friends, individuals may be liked more when they show they have a homogeneous (ingroup) social network. This is indirectly demonstrated by results showing that individuals favor people who display ingroup bias (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001), lower empathy and more negative attributions toward ingroup members with a diverse social network (Johnson & Ashbun-Nardo, 2014). In addition, majority members perceive greater ingroup consensus when they display more prejudice toward the minority (Pedersen, Griffiths, & Watt, 2008; Watt & Larkin, 2010), while they express lower life satisfaction (Seder & Oishi, 2009) and are more likely to be victims of stigma when they associate with members from stigmatized groups (Pryor, Reeder, & Monroe, 2012).

A second point we considered when building the extended contact intervention relates to the valence of intergroup experiences. Since individuals are likely to have both positive and negative intergroup experiences, and negative (vs. positive) experiences are more readily recalled and more influential in social evaluations (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001), we had to ensure that participants disclosed positive cross-group experiences. A further point we took into account is that participants need to be motivated and engaged in order to strengthen the effects of the intervention, especially when targets are children (Oskamp, 2000).

Taking into account the previous considerations and that children and adolescents are motivated by competitive tasks (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961), we decided to organize a competition for the best essay on real experiences of intercultural friendships. The competition was organized jointly by the schools taking part in the intervention and by the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The competition aspired to be motivating for children and to induce them to focus on positive cross-group experiences. It should be noted that attention was placed on making the competition ‘friendly’, presenting it as a ‘celebration’ of friendship.

The task was to create an essay on personal experiences of friendships with the outgroup (i.e., the essay best representing the values of friendship would be the winning one). Essays were written in ethnically homogeneous, same-sex groups of two to three children (groups composed of only Italian or only immigrant children). Groups met once a week for three weeks. In the first two sessions, participants exchanged their positive cross-group experiences, selected the most favorite ones, and wrote the essay. Notably, by exchanging their stories, children came to know about the positive cross-group experiences of their ingroup peers. In the third session, the groups were asked to evaluate an essay written by anonymous ingroup peers from other classes or schools who were also taking part in the competition. Specifically, children were given two hours to carefully read the essay and evaluate the extent to which it highlighted the positive values of friendship (they were also asked to provide a written justification for their response). Although there was the possibility that hearing about classmates’ positive cross-group experiences (first two sessions) could lead to subtyping the ingroup member (Hewstone & Richards, 2001), with negative consequences on attitude generalization (Brown & Hewstone, 2005), exposure to positive cross-group experiences by anonymous ingroup peers (third session) was expected to reinforce the idea that positive cross-group experiences are common and/or normative among ingroup members.

We also included a control group in this research, which followed the same procedure, with one key difference: the task for participants in this case was to compete for the best essay on friendship, with no mention of cross-group experiences.

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention, participants were administered one questionnaire one week after the end of the intervention, including measures of ingroup and outgroup norms, outgroup attitudes, and contact behavioral intentions. In order to assess long-term effects on real (self-reported) behavior, we returned to the schools after three months and administered a further questionnaire, asking children to report their three best friends and the ethnic group to which these friends belonged (Italian or immigrant).

Results from the first assessment (one week upon completion of the intervention) revealed that the intervention produced an increase in perceptions that both the ingroup and the outgroup have norms favoring intergroup contact. In turn, both ingroup and outgroup norms were associated with stronger intentions to have contact with immigrants; in addition, ingroup norms were also positively associated with improved outgroup attitudes. In line with evidence that intentions rather than attitudes are stronger predictors of behavior (Godin & Kok, 1996), contact intentions (but not outgroup attitudes) were associated with a greater number of outgroup friends three months after the end of the intervention (see Figure 2.2). This is important as it provides evidence that our operationalization of extended contact led to an increase in befriending outgroup members.

The sample also included immigrant children; however, because of the low sample size (N = 24), data were not reported in the original article (Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Capozza, & Visintin, 2015). However, we analyzed the data for descriptive purposes and found that the intervention produced higher means in the experimental (vs. control) condition on all dependent variables, including self- reported cross-group friendships three months after the intervention.

Tested path model (standardized regression coefficients are reported) Source

FIGURE 2.2 Tested path model (standardized regression coefficients are reported) Source: Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Capozza, and Visintin (2015)

Note: Nonsignificant paths are omitted. Correlations not reported in the figure: ingroup norms favorable to contact-outgroup norms favorable to contact: .47, p < .001; outgroup attitudes-contact behavioral intentions: .53, p < .001. Gender and age were controlled for.

*p < .05. **/> < .01. ***/> < .001.

This study shows that basic principles of extended contact apply in naturalistic interventions and that the effects can be, at least relatively, long-lasting and extend to real behavior. There is one additional result worth mentioning, which calls for the necessity of realizing carefully designed, theoretically driven interventions. Participants in the control condition, competing for the best essay on friendship in general, were free to report whatever friendship experience they wanted to, be it with ingroup or outgroup peers. However, a qualitative analysis of essays in this condition revealed that none of the essays reported cross-group friendship experiences. The possibility that children in the control condition did not have outgroup friends is unlikely: the study took place in a multicultural context, and all the essays in the experimental condition reported real experiences with outgroup friends.

There may be various explanations for this finding, in addition to explanations provided by research reported earlier, showing that individuals are unlikely to disclose cross-group friendships to ingroup members. For instance, since intragroup interactions are sometimes more intimate and satisfying than intergroup interactions (Shook & Fazio, 2008b; Taylor, Dube, & Bellerose, 1986), they may be ofless use in a competition for the best friendship experience. Whatever the explanation is, this result suggests that individuals may be largely unaware of their peers’ crossgroup experiences, casting doubts on the main implicit assumption of extended contact research, namely, that people know about their ingroup members’ intergroup experiences. We do know from self-reports provided in extended contact studies that, at least in part, people are aware of close others’ intergroup experiences; however, it is clear that interventions need to take into account the fact that people may not readily disclose positive intergroup contact to peers.

After completing the ‘academic’ part of the intervention, we turned to the community. At the end of the intervention, the 20 essays that were evaluated more positively by participants themselves (jointly considering experimental and control conditions) were posted on the participating schools’ websites (after removing identifying information), and teachers, parents, and children could vote for the best essay. The website was also promoted to University of Modena and Reggio Emilia students, who could also vote for the best essay. We then organized a ceremony for the children who took part in the intervention. Considering the ‘non-competitive’ aspect of the competition, all the children who wished to take part in the ceremony and their parents were invited, and a local library kindly rewarded all children taking part in the ceremony with a book. The winners of the competition read their essay during the ceremony. A further award was offered by the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia: children taking part in the competition (and therefore not only the winners) could spend ‘a day as a university student’, as guests of the University. Twenty children who opted for this opportunity, accompanied by their parents, were hosted by the Department of Education and Human Sciences. Children created pairs, and after allocating each pair to a pair of university students, children (supervised by parents) could freely explore the university and attend a university lecture given by the first author of the article (anecdotally, they appeared to enjoy the lecture a lot more than the university students!). The children also read their essays during the lecture in front of university students and spent the rest of the day wandering around the campus and learning about university life.

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