Blog #1: About Social Contact Theory

Civinc was founded in response to concerns regarding (online) polarization. We noticed how algorithms categorize people in ‘filter bubbles’, where people barely get to see and interact with different perspectives than their own. This can help fuel prejudices towards others, a growing feeling of an “us” versus “them”. On a societal level, this polarization is a threat to democracy, as we run the risk of disregarding opinions we disagree with, instead of discussing these different world views and seeking common ground. Civinc was founded with the aim to burst filter bubbles and combat prejudices by facilitating anonymous one-on-one discussions between people who think differently. This ‘Civinc Method’ builds on the principles of the Social Contact Theory, a famous term in the field of psychology. But what is the social contact theory exactly? And how does the Civinc method incorporate the underlying principles of the theory? To shed light on this, we have outlined a short history and explanation of this theory.

The social contact theory, not to be confused with the social contract theory, is also known as the ‘intergroup contact hypothesis’. The first formulation of the theory can be traced back to a monograph written by Cornell University sociologist Robin Williams Jr. in 1947. Williams provided the first formulations of tensions between different groups – seen as the “in-group” (the group which you belong to) and “out-group” (the group that those who think differently from you belong to). Williams recommended further applying these theories to find ways to overcome these tensions.

The ‘founding father’ of the social contact theory was Harvard Professor Gordon Allport (1897-1967), who built forth on Williams’ work, and coined the ‘intergroup hypothesis’ in 1954. Allport concerned himself with prejudices, and he found that stereotypical categorisation happens in many different cultures throughout history. He argued that stereotyping is a ‘shortcut’ in our brain to help us understand the world – this is known as the ‘least effort’ theory. By automatically dividing the world into little stereotype boxes, it costs less energy to navigate the complexities of life.

His next question to answer, then, was: how do we overcome these prejudices? 

Allport’s work is seen as the foundation for studies researching the importance of contact in reducing prejudices between groups. Allport pointed out that although contact can reduce prejudice, it could also worsen it. Therefore, he suggested that intergroup contact can only yield positive results under four key conditions:equal status, intergroup cooperation, common goals, and support by authorities. Equal status was a crucial condition according to Allport, he believed that contact between groups where one was considered subordinate would only make the tensions worse. Intergroup cooperation and common goals refers to a common goal that the groups can work towards together – for example, studies have been conducted in the context of a football game where the two groups are mixed into teams. This way, they have a common goal (defeat the other team), and members of both groups have to work together within the two teams. Support by authorities refers to the support of the groups’ authorities, who can indicate that the contact is acceptable. These are quite the requirements for success – but, in the late 90’s, professors Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp discovered through a large-scale meta-analysis that although Allport’s conditions are important and certainly do cause a positive effect, even unstructured contact reduces prejudice. In other words, the social contact theory works under less strict conditions than the ones Allport prescribed. 

Researcher Jona de Jong, PhD candidate at the European University Institute and specialized in polarization, has studied the social contact theory by using the Civinc platform. By connecting people from ‘opposing’ political affiliations in anonymous one on one discussions on contentious/controversial topics, de Jong measured the impact thereof on a number of variables related to affective polarization (how people on opposing ends of the spectrum view one another). Remarkably, 10-minute conversations between staunch Labor and Conservative voters in the UK on polarizing issues proved to have a very significant positive impact on mutual sympathy scores as well as the willingness to discuss with the ‘other side’ (again) in the future. This is clear evidence in support of the social contract theory, and ties in with recent studies, which show that the following conditions are already enough to reduce affective polarization: 

  1. Making people feel included in a discussion 
  2. Reading persuasive arguments
  3. Sharing personal experiences or inviting others to share theirs
  4. Having people discover they have something in common with the ‘Other’

All of these conditions can be achieved through the Civinc method, which helps to explain why the concept of our platform yields such impressive results.

Our goal is not for people to convince one another of a particular position: the beauty of democracy lies in the freedom for every individual to believe what they believe in. But the beauty of the Civinc concept, in turn, is that bursting bubbles invites understanding, nuance and trust. So by all means… Let’s make conversation!

Let's make conversation.

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