Contact Theory, Controlled Thought, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

In our class focused on aversive racism, we examined an article by Patricia G. Devine. Devine’s article consisted of three related studies which focused on the mental processes of both high-prejudice and low-prejudice individuals. Devine’s first study found that high and low prejudice individuals are aware of the same stereotypes. Devine’s second study looked below the surface of consciousness, and found that when people, whether they are high or low prejudice are not aware that they are being primed with stereotypes, they will behave in a way that is dictated by the stereotypes. The third, and (in my opinion) most important study affirmed that there are two distinct routes that people encounter when engaging in stereotypical thought (clarify: thoughts about stereotypes). The first route is the automatic route, that is, when a stereotype comes to mind, the mind automatically processes it, and people automatically use the stereotypes. The second route is the controlled route, which occurs when people get the opportunity to control their thoughts before using or not using stereotypes. It is through the controlled route that we see the distinction between high and low prejudice individuals. High prejudice individuals, when given opportunity to control their thoughts, still use stereotypes to direct their thinking. Low prejudice individuals, on the other hand, take the opportunity to control their thoughts and actively avoid the use of stereotypes in their thinking.

This phenomenon can be explained by two aspects of a human tendency known as the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is the human propensity to, in judging why someone behaved the way he or she did, overestimate dispositional qualities. These dispositional qualities are often related to stereotypical thoughts automatically generated by the thinker. The fundamental attribution error can be overcome if a person has time, cognitive energy, and motivation.

When we came to discussing this in class, we brought up this idea in class, we used the idea of a white person walking into a room and seeing a non-white person and reacting to being in a room with her. We discussed the difference between interacting with a non-white person and having a non-white person’s ethnicity primed with a flash.

I asserted that walking into a room provides the opportunity to exhibit a controlled thought process, and thus, the right person could interact with a non-white person without actively using stereotypes in his or her thoughts. The immediate reaction to this statement, however, was a unanimous shaking of the head from the minority/non-white members of the class. This reaction, of course, was somewhat upsetting to me, as it did not give members of the majority a chance to ever do the rate thing in a racially precarious situation. I was of course, given a chance to defend and clarify my point, because of the academic setting this interaction took place in, but until that moment came I was overcome with a feeling that the racial tension in our society could never be remedied.

Gordon Allport’s Contact Theory states that prejudice can be overcome with contact between the majority and the minority. This contact, however, has to be positive to work, and both parties have to have a common goal.

My classmates reactions were of course understandable. The majority has, for all of history enforced a system of privilege and discrimination on the minority. While I do not blame my classmates for their reactions, I wonder then, if the contact theory could ever work, if the minority side of the contact theory may inherently have trouble finding an interaction with the majority positive. It seems that, and rightly so, just as the majority has been conditioned to stereotype, the minority may have been conditioned to think that the majority will always stereotype.

In class, we found a place of peaceful discussion in a hypothetical situation, in which the white person entering the room was the lowest of low prejudice individuals. Perhaps a solution may be to before the contact occurs between the minority and majority parties, to prime them with positive feelings about the opposite party. Although this could result in an awkward or forced situation, it could, in fact make a difference. Devine found that when people were primed with a stereotype, a person could not help thinking in a way that used the stereotype. Perhaps, (probably to a lesser extent) priming someone with positive thoughts could have the same effect, allowing the contact hypothesis to be successful.