Shared educational experiences reduce discriminatory behavior
Positive social contact between members of ethnic or religious groups in conflict can reduce discriminatory behavior – while prejudice remains unchanged, a new study shows. It is based on a field experiment among Christian and Muslim young men, that was undertaken in a riot-prone city in Nigeria by WZB researcher Alexandra Scacco and Shana S. Warren (New York University). The researchers tested whether, in a divided society, prejudice and discrimination decrease when young men experience sustained social contact with members of the other group in comparison to individuals who stayed within their own group. The study offers key insights for policy makers who implement peacebuilding and youth programming interventions in conflict and post-conflict regions.
The field experiment – the Urban Youth Vocational Training (UYVT) project – brought together Christian and Muslim young men aged 18 to 25 for sixteen weeks of free computer training. They came from disadvantaged neighborhoods in the Nigerian city of Kaduna, which has been a hot spot of Christian-Muslim violence since 2000.
The sample included 849 young men,. of which 549 were invited to participate in the computer training. The other 300 served as a control group. Within the training course, two-thirds of the students were assigned to religiously heterogeneous classes, the remaining one-third to homogeneous classes. The classes typically consisted of 12 to 16 students.
After sixteen weeks of training, the study finds no changes in prejudiced attitudes among course participants but does find changes in behavior: heterogeneous-class subjects discriminate significantly less against out-group members than subjects in homogenous classes. That was shown in behavioral economics games that the participants played 4-6 weeks after the end of the computer course.
“Our study offers strong experimental evidence that intergroup social contact can alter behavior in constructive ways, even in contexts experiencing periodic episodes of violent conflict,” says WZB researcher Alexandra Scacco.
The study also offers insights into the question of why subjects in homogeneous classes discriminate more. In homogeneous settings, in-group members share norms, culture and language. This shared background can serve as a powerful multiplier for the effects of social contact. It therefore seems that opportunities for in-group bonding can heighten discrimination. Intergroup contact can serve as a check against the potentially adverse effects of exclusively homogeneous social contact. Scacco and Warren’s research has important implications for social service provision and development projects in conflict-prone environments, where programs are often homogeneous, due to residential segregation or by design, in order to avoid conflict between members of different ethnic or religious groups. This study suggests that such programs might have the unintended effect of reinforcing discriminatory behavior against out-group members. Rather than including a socially heterogeneous treatment arm as a “bonus” feature of development interventions, the study suggests that integrated programming may be essential to curb the effects of in-group bonding on intergroup relations. This insight should apply not only to settings of ongoing conflict, but ethnically or religiously diverse contexts more broadly. This type of intervention can be easily applied to interethnic and intercultural contact in increasingly diverse societies”.
Scacco and Warren argue that prejudiced attitudes, developed over a lifetime and reinforced by family members and community networks, are likely to be particularly resistant to change. “We should not expect deeply engrained attitudes to respond to short-term social engineering. Setting goals of behavioral change, rather than prejudice reduction, may be more realistic and more useful in the long-term”, Scacco says.