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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Can Positive Relations Have Negative Results?

Emphasizing the commonalities between two religious or ethnic groups will help create harmony between the groups, but it also might lead to greater social inequality, according to new research by a group of psychologists led by Tamar Saguy of Yale University. The researchers found that when two groups—one more advantaged than the other—focus on their similarities, the disadvantaged social group develops better attitudes toward the advantaged group and a greater belief that the advantaged group will act fairly when it comes to things like distributing resources. In other words, the disadvantaged group begins to focus less attention on the differences in power between the two groups. This group becomes overly optimistic, the researchers write—and "such optimism may relax support for social action." Yet, they find, the new expectations "prove unrealistic when compared against the actions of members of the advantaged group."
After testing their theory in the lab, the researchers surveyed Israeli-Arabs (a disadvantaged minority group) and found that those who had more Jewish friends had better attitudes toward Jews (the majority group) and were more likely to think Jews were fair to Arabs. These Israeli-Arabs also showed less attention to social inequality and relaxed support for social change (though their motivation for change remained generally high).
According to the researchers, "positive intergroup contact and intergroup harmony do not necessarily undermine efforts toward inequality," but "encounters that emphasize both common connections and the problem of unjust group inequalities may promote intergroup understanding as well as recognition of the need for change. Such mixed-content encounters, through which common humanity and morality are likely to be emphasized, can both bring members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups together and perhaps motivate them to eliminate social inequalities." —Heather Wax