Familiarity breeds tolerance: Linda Tropp honored for influential ‘contact theory’ analysis

Linda Tropp, psychological and brain sciences, and her group of researchers spent over five years “trying to find every study on intergroup contact we could,” she says. 

Contact theory is a social psychology idea that suggests that contact between social groups (such as racial and ethnic groups) can be an effective strategy for reducing intergroup prejudice. This theory maintains that contact, under certain conditions, between two or more social groups can promote tolerance. If groups are allowed to communicate with one another, they may start to appreciate each other's viewpoints.  

Tropp mined more than 500 studies gathered from the 1940s through the year 2000, which together include more than 250,000 participants from 38 countries, to conduct a “meta-analysis,” a type of research study “where you try to find every study ever done on a particular topic, and then using statistical methods, you combine the results from those studies to see what they show overall,” she explains. 

“When we combine all those studies, what we see is that greater contact between groups is associated with lower levels of prejudice,” says Tropp. The study results, published in 2006, provide very strong support for this contention. Taken together, 94% of the studies share that finding – and those studies conducted with more rigorous research methodologies show this relationship even more strongly.  

“Our work supports efforts to achieve racial and ethnic integration.” —Linda Tropp

Now Tropp has been selected as a recipient of the 2018 Scientific Impact Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP), which “honors the author(s) of a specific article or chapter offering a theoretical, empirical, and/or methodological contribution that has proven highly influential over the last 25 years.” 

As summarized by the selection committee chair: “The committee's decision was unanimous and reflects the tremendous importance of [our] meta-analysis and broader body of work, both theoretical and methodological, that has emerged before and since this particular publication.” 

Some senior scholars have also credited the authors with the renaissance in attention given to research on intergroup contact over the last decade.  According to Google Scholar, this manuscript has been cited well over 5000 times since it was published in 2006. 

The official award ceremony takes place in Seattle on Friday, October 5, at the society’s annual conference.  

Tropp has also examined how groups of different status and power interact. She is interested in studying legacies of inequality and conflict that form a group's perspectives and motivations. She strives to identify mechanisms that could be used to strengthen positive relations and social justice. 

“Communities and organizations across the country and around the world often employ contact as a strategy for improving relations between groups,” Tropp notes. "Our work provides evidence that supports these efforts, and broader efforts to achieve racial and ethnic integration in our society and divided societies around the world.” 

Read on: 
Tropp edits essay collection Making Research Matter 
Tropp honored for ‘highly influential’ work