By Jennifer A. Richeson, social psychologist at Yale University
The “contact hypothesis” is a straightforward but powerful idea. It says this: People who come from different social and cultural groups can learn to like and accept one another through repeated interactions, such as through conversations. Contact can reduce prejudice and promote peace.
We often first learn about people from different societal groups through stereotypes. The contact hypothesis posits that when we meet each other as individuals, people stop being stereotypes and become people again. The learning, familiarity, and humanization that happen when we really start to get to know another person are important to breaking down the interpersonal forms of racism, anti-semitism, and “othering” that have been part of our country’s history.
StoryCorps’ One Small Step is scaffolded on contact theory. The contact participants have in this program — one-on-one conversations between two strangers — is intentionally extra-personal. It’s not just “talk about some stuff” or “get to know one another” for instance, as most contact experiences might unfold between, say, college-dorm roommates, who might be from different backgrounds and are given a whole semester to connect. When people come together through One Small Step, they speak immediately about personal, human experiences that invite connection and open up the space for vulnerability. It is moderated through the presence of a trained StoryCorps Facilitator, who helps create ground rules and a space that is carefully managed.
What’s so brilliant about it is that it provides the opportunity for people not just to take the perspective of a person from a very different social group, but also to feel that their perspective has been “gotten.” In other words, people feel that they have been respected, seen, and heard. And that kind of perspective getting, not perspective taking — knowing that someone else now understands where you’re coming from — that’s the magic. That’s where you have a human-to-human moment, the opportunity to recognize the essence, the common humanity, that’s in all of us. It doesn’t become unimportant that you’re conservative or you’re liberal, or that you’re this race or that religion. It’s just that you aren’t flattened into those identities, and the worst stereotypes that we may hold about those identities. And, that allows just a little bit of space, some “identity safety,” for individuals to recognize that people from very different walks of life may not actually be all that threatening.
Our fears can be overwhelming when we perceive threats to be true. We hunker down and get protective: “OK, I must defend myself and people like me.” In our current political landscape, we tend to think the best way to protect our ingroup is to diminish if not obliterate our adversaries, to push them out or make them irrelevant.
But the answer to “identity threat” doesn’t have to be taking out the other guys. It could be to reduce the threat, and to help people understand, for instance, through direct connections with people from different groups, that they don’t need to feel so threatened. One Small Step conversations allow people an opportunity to see what is possible on the other side of our current state of political acrimony.
Approaching an intensely personal, vulnerable conversation can be scary. People can benefit even from just listening to these conversations from the outside. When listeners hear how well such interactions can go, they realize making these connections is possible, and not as frightening as they might think.
Many people don’t engage in conversations across different social groups, not because they’re not interested, unwilling, or don’t care, but because they’re afraid of being rejected. Once you’ve witnessed an experience of positive conversation between two people with different backgrounds and beliefs, that barrier can come down and open the door for real — and necessary — human connection.
Jennifer A. Richeson is the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Perception and Communication Laboratory at Yale University. For over 20 years, she has conducted research on the social psychology of cultural diversity. Specifically, she examines processes of mind and brain that influence the ways in which people experience diversity, with a primary focus on the dynamics that create, sustain, and sometimes challenge societal inequality. Much of her recent research considers the political consequences of the increasing racial/ethnic diversity of the United States. Read more about Professor Richeson here.