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Do Bad Interracial Interactions Shape Our Attitudes More than Good Interracial Interactions?

March 10, 2013

By Fiona Kate Barlow (University of Queensland), Stefania Paolini (University of Newcastle, Australia), Anne Pedersen (Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia), Matthew Hornsey (University of Queensland), Helena Radke (University of Queensland), Jake Harwood (University of Arizona), Mark Rubin (University of Newcastle, Australia), and Chris Sibley (University of Auckland).

In 2013 American comedian Louis C.K. appeared on the Jay Leno Show, and took the opportunity to talk about race in the US. He pithily summed up many points made in the academic literature on intergroup relations, albeit less formally.

 You can’t take people’s historical context away from them. White people are always like: “Come on, it wasn’t us!”, like they want Black people to forget everything. Like, every year, White people add 100 years to how long ago slavery was. I’ve heard educated White people say: “Slavery was 400 years ago!” No it very (sic) wasn’t! It was 140 years ago. That is two 70 year old ladies living and dying back to back… That’s how recently you could buy a guy. And it’s not like slavery ended and then everything has been amazing… and it’s just been parades and presents ever since… You gotta remember that if you meet a Black person (and) they have grey hair they remember a time that they weren’t allowed to use a certain toilet. (Source:  Louis CK on the Jay Leno Show:

So why hasn’t it all been “parades and presents?” Why does prejudice still exist even in societies that promote positive interactions across group lines?

In some ways, the contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954) has been the “great white hope” of people desiring racial equality (see Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006; Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005). And ample evidence indicates that contact between groups reduces prejudice. For example, white, straight, or  young people who have Black, gay, and older friends tend to feel more positively about Black, Gay and older people in general (for a meta-analysis see Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006).  These prejudice-reducing effects of positive contact, however, may be offset by the prejudice-increasing effects of negative contact.  Individuals are, in general, much more attuned to, and on the lookout for, negative information. Reliably, losing $50 is worse than finding $50 is good; a kind word is lovely, but nowhere near as powerful and memorable as an unkind word; being accepted when you ask someone out is exciting, but nowhere near as earth shattering as getting turned down is; and so on and so forth. As Baumeister and his colleagues explain, when it comes to the human experience, bad is stronger than good (see Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer & Vohs, 2001).

When my coauthors and I started to look at the literature we began to ask one another why areas that have the highest levels of multiculturalism (and thus, presumably intergroup contact) often show the highest levels of intergroup conflict (e.g., Cernat, 2010). In line with previous theorizing (see Paolini, Harwood & Rubin, 2010) we proposed that in the real world, negative contact might be having a strong oppositional effect on intergroup attitudes – working alongside positive contact, but instead increasing racism. Further, we proposed a positive-negative asymmetry (in line with Baumeister et al., 2001). We thought that negative contact should be the stronger and more consistent predictor of prejudice. We tested our hypotheses over two studies, which I outline below.

In our first Study we took seven existing datasets, collected by myself, Anne Pedersen and Stefania Paolini. These datasets were collected from across Australia, over a period of around 10 years, and collectively contained information from over 1500 participants. Critically, each dataset contained a measure of contact quantity with Black Australians (e.g., “How often do you interact with Black Australians”), a measure of contact quality (e.g., “Typically, is the contact you experience bad/negative or good/positive”), and a measure of racism towards Black Australians. This allowed us to create an interaction term and test our first hypothesis – to the extent that people have more negative interracial contact, do they also display more prejudice? Further, we could see whether, as we had argued, bad was stronger than good when it came to predicting racism.

We found that (unsurprisingly) non-Black Australians who had positive contact with Black Australians were less prejudiced than those who had negative contact. Prejudice Australia FigureBut the amount of positive contact was relatively meaningless (see Figure 1).

When it came to negative contact, however, the effects were strong – with every small increase in negative contact with Black Australians we saw a marked increase in prejudice. Here was our first evidence for positive-negative asymmetry –interracial fights and screaming matches might increase prejudice more than interracial hugs and joking matches reduce it. In ancillary analyses we replicated this finding when looking at contact with, and attitudes towards, Muslim Australians and Asylum Seekers.

In Study 2 we turned our empirical lens away from Australia and towards the US. In Study 2 we asked 441 White Americans how much positive and negative contact they had with Black Americans.

In line with Study 1, negative contact was linked to increased prejudice more so than positive contact was linked to its reduction (See Figure 2). This pattern emerged across a range of outcome measures, including modern and old-fashioned racism, as well as the extent to which they wished to actively avoid spending time with Black Americans in the future, as well as how much they wanted to avoid talking about sensitive race-based issues with Black Americans (such as the past, politics, and race). We also found it on attitudes towards the question of Barack Obama’s birthplace: to the extent that White Americans had negative contact with Black Americans they were also more likely to be suspicious that he was actually born in Kenya.Modern Racism America Figure

Both studies paint a clear picture – one of positive-negative asymmetry of contact effects. So what do we make of this? Well, to begin with, our findings help to explain the continued presence of racism and discrimination, despite increasing multiculturalism and interracial relationships across the world. It might be that negative contact, as well as positive contact and friendship, has increased – and that even a little negative contact might effectively “trump” the effects of positive contact. As researchers it is now our job to work to understand negative contact more fully – what types are most common, how do people feel after negative contact, and what emotions drive their prejudice following negative contact? In addition, we need to understand how negative contact works similarly and differently in disadvantaged minority and advantaged majority groups. Finally, it is clear that if racism is going to be effectively combatted (parades and presents?), it is not just positive contact that must increase. Rather, negative contact needs to be understood, and confronted.

Author Information

Fiona Kate BarlowDr Fiona Kate Barlow is an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Fiona is passionate about research, and is loathe to limit her scope. One of her focuses is on intergroup relations, conducting studies to investigate factors that separate, and bring together different groups. Her past research has looked at how fear of rejection and race-based anxiety can lead to misunderstandings between Aboriginal, White and Asian Australians, Americans, and New Zealanders. Most recently she has been investigating how interactions and intergroup contact can shape the way that we feel about our own, and other groups.

Stefania Paolini
Stefania Paolini is Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle (Australia). Her research interests are the social psychology of prejudice, stereotyping, and intergroup relations more broadly. Currently, her main research projects relate to the effects of intergroup contact and social categorization and learning of intergroup anxiety and stereotyping.

Anne Pedersen

Anne Pedersen is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology and Exercise Science at Murdoch University (Perth, in Western Australia).  She is an applied social and community psychologist; most of her work involves countering prejudice against asylum seekers and refugees, Indigenous Australians and Muslim Australians.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMatthew Hornsey is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Queensland. His research interests focus on (a) how people respond to trust-sensitive messages such as criticisms, recommendations for change, and gestures of remorse; and (b) the dynamic and sometimes tense relationship between individual and collective selves.

Helena RadkeHelena Radke is a PhD student at the University of Queensland under the supervision of Fiona Kate Barlow and Mathew Hornsey. She is interested in understanding prejudice (primarily racism and sexism) and how social change occurs through collective action.

Jake HarwoodJake Harwood is Professor of Communication at the University of Arizona. His research interests are in the communicative dimensions of intergroup relations. He is author of Understanding Communication and Aging (Sage, 2007) and co-editor of The Dynamics of Intergroup Communication (Peter Lang, 2011).

Mark RubinMark Rubin is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He received an MSc from the London School of Economics and a PhD from Cardiff University, UK. He is particularly recognised for his work on social identity and intergroup relations, and he continues to work in related areas such as perceived group variability, prejudice, and stereotyping. For more information, please visit his research webpage at:

Chris SibleyChris Sibley is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland. He is the lead researcher for the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study. This is a representative longitudinal study that assesses change and stability in the personality, social attitudes, and values of roughly 6500 New Zealanders each year, and running the study keeps him fairly busy.


Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Barlow, F.K., Paolini, S., Pedersen, A., Hornsey, M.J., Radke, H.R.M., Harwood, J., Rubin, M., & Sibley, C.G. (2012). The contact caveat: Negative contact predicts increased prejudice more than positive contact predicts reduced prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(12), 1629-1643.

Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370.

Paolini, S., Harwood, J., & Rubin, M. (2010). Negative intergroup contact makes group memberships salient: Explaining why intergroup conflict endures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1723-1738.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751-783.

Tropp, L. R., & Pettigrew, T. F. (2005). Relationships between intergroup contact and prejudice among minority and majority status groups. Psychological Science, 16(12), 951-957.

Image Credit: Donelson R. Forsyth

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 12, 2013 12:47 pm

    People are not prejudiced by negative experiences. Prejudice is a learned attitude. It has to be taught and most often is cultivated at an early age in the home. Xenophobia is a product of a culture lacking in diversity. The basic human tendency to mistrust the unknown and the “other” who appears unusual, is well documented. Racism is seeing color. The opposite of racism is seeing individuals; aknowleging uniqueness.

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