The Fine Art of Crafting Friends Out of Strangers

Mind & Matter

[NOTE: Apologies for posting this column. We, like many, fell victim to the fraud and deception of UCLA political science grad student Michael LaCour’s so-called study, which became a bit of a media frenzy a few months ago.  See this interesting read about lessons learned from this episode, in New York Magazine:]



(Originally published in the Wall Street Journal on February 28, 2015 – Page C2 – Available only in US Print Edition)

By Robert M. Saplosky

People change their minds.

My generation (yeah, including me) once thought cranberry bell-bottoms looked cool. And sometimes, people change their minds about socially divisive issues concerning an “Other.”

Say you meet someone who seems so different from you that their needs and feelings don’t register ― but shazam! ― something changes, and you now see the similarities rather than the differences. Who counts as “us” expands.

Engage “Others” from Russia and China and emerging markets – and explore the value of diversity to your organization – at the 6th National Summit on Strategic Communications on May 4-5, 2015 in Washington DC.  See the full agenda here.

The granddaddy of theories about what fosters such change is the ‘contact hypothesis.’ The idea is straightforward: Contact between hostile groups reduces hostility.  When that actually works is anything but straightforward.

Extensive research has revealed circumstances when contact tends to make people open-minded about the Other: when both groups are roughly equal in number, when contact is prolonged in a neutral setting or when participants engage in a shared goal (think Palestinian and Israeli teenagers doing summer camp in Scotland, practicing curling to beat the Tutsi/Hutu camp team from across the lake).

In contrast, the wrong kind of contact worsens things. In an earlier column, I discussed an example of this. Place two people chatting in Spanish, every morning at a suburban train station for two weeks, and exclusionary attitudes about Hispanic immigrants increased among the white commuters.

A recent study in Science magazine demonstrates how remarkably brief contact changes opinions about a divisive social issue. The researchers, Michael LaCour of the University of California Los Angeles and Donald Green of Columbia University, recruited people to fill out repeated surveys about politics over a period of months.

At one point during this period, the researchers had a canvasser knock at subjects’ doors, advocating same-sex marriage. Canvassers were polite and respectful, making their points from a prepared script. In the process, they revealed their motivation. Half the canvassers discussed their gay relative or friend who wished to marry someone they loved.

As assessed three days later, meeting either type of canvasser equivalently increased support for same-sex marriage. And this was a big effect, with support increasing from the levels of a state like Nebraska to those of more-liberal Massachusetts.  

Then a key difference occurred. Following contact with “straight” canvassers, increased support for same-sex marriage only lasted a few weeks. But with “gay” canvassers, support persisted nine months later. Moreover, when asked about their feelings about gay individuals, the canvassed subjects showed a large, persistent increase in favorable ratings. Canvassers advocating abortion rights or recycling (and revealing themselves, in passing, to be gay) had no effect on support for same-sex marriage.

More strikingly, the contact-induced changes in opinion were ― to use a medical term now increasingly part of social scientists’ lingo ―“contagious.” Speaking to a gay canvasser in favor of same-sex marriage increased support among the housemates of subjects (with no such effect from the other Interaction conditions). The conversations presumably went something like this: “Hey, while you were out today, I spoke to this guy who came to the door….” The increase in support was about half as large as that showed by the subjects, and just as persistent.

Thus, hearing from strangers about the needs of Others close to them doesn’t persistently change opinion. But hearing from someone close about the needs of a stranger who is an Other does. It’s how opinions spread whether the hominids are sitting around the dinner table or are huddling around the campfire feasting on mammoth.

This study is intriguing because minimal contact brought about large, persistent and transmittable changes in opinion. “I remember that guy I spoke with back in August; we had a lot more in common that I’d € have thought.”

But the results wouldn’t surprise a journalist who knows the first rule of a good story: Dump the statistics, and put a face on an issue.

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