A social cognitive theory approach to the effects of mediated intergroup contact on intergroup attitudes.

Author:Ortiz, Michelle

Intergroup contact is an effective approach for the reduction of prejudice, negative stereotyping, and discrimination. In order to produce positive outcomes, Allport (1954) argued that certain conditions within the contact situation have to be met: equal status among the individuals; individuals share common goals; individuals work together to achieve such goals; and, contact has the support of authorities (i.e., social norms favor intergroup cooperation and interaction) (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000; Pettigrew, 1998). Almost 50 years after Allport's original work, Pettigrew and Tropp's (2000) meta-analysis showed that contact meeting Allport's conditions resulted in decreased intergroup bias. Optimal intergroup contact, however, can be difficult to achieve given the anxiety and hostility that sometimes pervade intergroup relations (Stephan & Stephan, 1985). This anxiety and hostility carries the threat of creating negative rather than positive outcomes. This study examines whether vicariously experiencing optimal intergroup contact in the media provides similar effects to real world intergroup contact, without the risk of accompanying anxiety. Below is an examination of the intergroup contact literature and social cognitive theory as the bases for the specific hypotheses in this study.

Intergroup Contact Theory

One central area of concern in contact theory has been the extent to which a specific positive intergroup experience generalizes to broader attitudes. Can a single conversation with an older adult, for instance, change a young person's more general attitudes about older people? Following Allport's (1954) initial formulation of the contact hypothesis, Hewstone and Brown (1986) argued that group membership typicality or representativeness in intergroup encounters facilitates generalization from a specific experience to more general attitudes. If an outgroup member is not seen as representative of his/her group, then contact is considered interpersonal and the effects will not generalize--the outgroup member may be treated as an exception. When the person is viewed as representative of the group, then treating them as an exception, or ignoring group memberships becomes more difficult and the specific encounter is more likely to be generalized. Evidence for the effects of group typicality in facilitating generalization from individual encounters to intergroup attitudes has emerged in a variety of contexts (e.g., attitudes toward immigrants: Voci & Hewstone, 2003; attitudes toward older adults: Harwood, Hewstone, Paolini, & Voci, 2005). However, maintaining group typicality while also meeting Allport's conditions for optimal intergroup contact is challenging, both because individuals inevitably learn individuating information during interactions (which renders the encounters more interpersonal), and because group-based information activates negative stereotypes and emotions, encouraging negative rather than positive outcomes (Hewstone, 1996).

Negative emotions, particularly anxiety, are common in intergroup contact (Greenland & Brown, 1999; Stephan & Stephan, 1985), and high anxiety suppresses positive effects of contact (Paolini, Hewstone, Cairns, & Voci, 2004). Anxiety also arises at the mere anticipation of future intergroup interaction, as individuals anticipate negative consequences associated with their behavior during such interactions. Anxious people rely more on stereotypes when making judgments and may even avoid intergroup interaction altogether. Prior levels of intergroup contact affect anxiety, such that individuals with low levels of prior contact are more likely to experience anxiety. Anxiety can be reduced by establishing clear expectations for behavior during intergroup contact (Stephan & Stephan, 1985).

Although the majority of previous research has focused on the experience of direct contact with the outgroup, recent work has begun to examine various types of indirect contact, including knowledge that a friend has positive intergroup relations (Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997), and contact via the media (Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, 2005). Indirect contact has the advantage of being less subject to the anxiety that occurs in direct interaction, and thus less subject to the negative consequences of that anxiety. Schiappa et al. demonstrate that exposure to media portrayals of homosexuals results in reduced prejudice toward gay men. Interpretation of their effects as analogous to a contact effect is strengthened by findings that the effects are strongest among straight people who have relatively little interpersonal contact with gay people. Schiappa et al. frame their findings in terms of a parasocial contact hypothesis. Specifically, they hypothesize that contact with the (mediated) outgroup member results in increased knowledge about the outgroup, and a feeling of increased trust or respect for the outgroup. However, they note the difficulty in pinpointing the precise process by which such change occurs. The current paper considers television's potential to influence intergroup attitudes from the perspective of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2002), a framework that specifies the process by which attitude change might be occurring, as well as providing some unique hypotheses relating to these effects.

Social Cognitive Theory

According to social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2002), humans are endowed with the capacity to learn from observation. Through observation, individuals can internalize cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses to situations that they do not experience directly. Once learned, individuals can emulate these responses in similar situations (Bandura, 2002). Vicarious experiences can be gained both in one's direct environment and through models observed in the media (Bandura, 2002). This contention has implications for portrayals of intergroup interactions on television. That is, audience members can learn positive intergroup behaviors from observing televised portrayals of characters engaging in positive intergroup contact.

Beyond learning positive behaviors, individuals can also learn positive attitudes concerning intergroup contact and outgroups via abstract modeling, the process by which individuals adopt rules learned through vicarious experience and apply them to different contexts (Bandura, 2002). Through observing media models, people can extract rules governing judgments and behaviors in the observed context, and apply those rules to guide behavior in different situations (Bandura, 1986). These rules also influence people's attitudes and their probability of expressing a particular attitude in a given context (Eyal & Rubin, 2003). When exposed to TV images of positive intergroup contact, for example, viewers may extract a rule that such interaction is open and friendly. They may then extrapolate this rule and use it to guide their behaviors and judgments in future situations where the rule might be applicable (i.e., other intergroup interactions).

Viewers also learn affective responses from symbolic interaction (Bandura, 1999). Social cognitive theory holds that observing characters ("models") display affective expressions creates affective arousal in the viewer. Viewers come to associate targets with emotions based on models' affective responses when encountering the target (Bandura, 1999), and thus develop the same emotional reaction regarding the target. Viewers may emulate ingroup characters' emotional responses to outgroup members. Thus, individuals model positive emotional reactions to outgroup members and develop positive attitudes regarding the outgroup. This leads to the first hypotheses:

[H.sub.1a]:Television exposure to positive intergroup interactions involving an ingroup member will be associated with lower levels of intergroup anxiety.

[H.sub.1b]:Television exposure to positive intergroup interactions involving an ingroup member will be associated with more positive attitudes toward the outgroup.

Social cognitive theory would not predict this association to be similar for all television characters; that is, while viewers are confronted with numerous models from which to gain vicarious experience, they will emulate some characters more than others (Bandura, 1977). Vicarious learning, a central tenet of social cognitive theory, involves immersion into certain characters' perspective (Bandura, 2002). Thus, the theory suggests that viewers' identification with a character influences their modeling of the character (Eyal & Rubin, 2003). Identification occurs when viewers perceive themselves as similar to a character and vicariously participate in the character's experiences (Hoffner, 1996). Identification occurs when individuals view themselves as the character within the program; adopt the character's perspective; experience and understand the character's emotions; and understand how and why the character acts the way he or she does (Cohen, 2001). Thus, in situations of exposure to portrayals of...

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