Having personal contact with ethnic minorities can reduce discrimination by the majority group in the population. This is particularly true when people have had no previous interactions with someone from a minority. That is the central message of research by Eleonora Freddi, Jan Potters and Sigrid Suetens, to be presented at the annual congress of the European Economic Association in August 2020.

Their research provides empirical evidence for the so-called ‘contact hypothesis’ suggested by the psychologist Gordon Allport in 1954. The theory presumes that prejudice is the consequence of people viewing minorities with a different ethnic background as out-group with whom they have little in common. Positive contact in the form of personal interaction, sharing of common goals and cooperating in joint projects would reduce this prejudice. 

To test this theory, the authors set up a field experiment on native Dutch high school pupils who participated in an educational programme at Tilburg University (Netherlands) in Spring 2019. The experiment consisted of two phases:

1) an intervention phase, where pupils randomly got into contact with university students with a majority or ethnic minority background; 

2) a decision-making phase, where pupils had to allocate some money between themselves and a game partner who had either a majority or minority background.

The authors find that pupils who interacted with students with a minority background discriminated less against a game partner from a minority. The interesting finding of this research is that the effect of personal contact on discrimination depends on previous exposure to ethnic minorities. Indeed, the authors find less discrimination against the minority only for pupils who did not have minority peers in their regular school classes.

During a first campus visit, the pupils participated in a team task together with university students. The task was designed to involve positive contact. In some teams the university student had a majority background and in the other teams the student had a visible ethnic minority background. Neither students nor pupils were aware that they were part of a study. 

During a second campus visit, which took place about a month after the first visit, the authors measured discrimination. The pupils participated in two economic games with partners from either majority or minority, who did not take part in the team task of the first visit. To measure discrimination, the pupils were assigned a partner with a different background in each of the two games so that the authors could assess a potentially different behaviour of the pupil against a majority or a minority partner. 

Pupils who had already been in contact with minority peers in their regular school classes did not behave differently when assigned a partner with a majority or a minority background. For them, the contact intervention did not have any effect. 

Instead, pupils who did not have minority peers in their regular school classes (and probably less frequently interacted with someone from a minority in their everyday life) allocated less money to a game partner with a minority background compared to a partner from the majority. Yet, for the pupils who worked together with a student with an ethnic minority background during the experiment, the authors did not find discriminatory behaviour towards a game partner from the minority, even after a month of the contact intervention.

Prejudice against ethnic minorities is persistently present in society. This research shows that even a small intervention, such as an interaction in a team task, can help reducing discrimination against the minorities. 


Eleonora Freddi

Email: eleonora.freddi@gmail.com

Phone: +4791758529

Website: https://sites.google.com/site/eleonorafreddi/