Can friendship triumph over prejudice?

"I'm not a racist, many of my best friends are [insert ethnic minority identifier]" ... so goes the contemporary refrain. But how much does friendship really smooth inter-group interactions?

A wealth of research has shown that people typically feel more uncomfortable when dealing with someone from a different social group rather than someone from their own group. This can be for a range of reasons, including negative stereotypes, uncertainty about how they'll be evaluated or even fear that they'll be perceived as prejudiced. But little researched until now is the palliating effect of friendship on these kind of interactions. Now a US study led by Jonathan Cook has found that friendship removes the discomfort associated with interacting with someone of a different ethnicity, but fails to ameliorate all the anxieties associated with interacting with someone who has a different sexual orientation.

Sixty-four university and community participants used a handheld computer to record their social interactions for a week, including answering questions about how they felt, who they had met with and whether or not they were friends.

For White gay and lesbian participants and Black participants of all sexual persuasions, interacting with a person of a different ethnicity was less comfortable and provoked more negative feeling than interacting with someone of the same ethnicity. Unless, that is, the other person was a friend, in which case the discomfort and anxiety evaporated.

White, heterosexual participants actually felt no discomfort interacting with people of other ethnicities (perhaps because, in this study, they were mainly liberal students and always in the majority social group). If the other ethnically different person was a friend, the straight White person actually felt more comfortable than if interacting with a White friend! Perhaps, the researchers surmised, this was because "demonstrating that one is not prejudiced to a historically marginalised out-group ... [is] self-affirming and evidence of one's positive inter-ethnic attitudes."

It wasn't such good news for interactions between straight and gay people. Men (but not women) of either sexual orientation, still felt inhibited interacting with another person of the opposite sexual orientation, even if they were friends. This is consistent with past research showing that heterosexual women are more accepting of homosexuality than heterosexual men. "Heterosexual men who interact with gay men or lesbians may also fear they will be misclassified as gay," the researchers said. "For gay men, awareness that attitudes towards them are negative and that homosexuality is often seen as a violation of gender norms is the most likely explanation for continuing behavioural inhibition, even with friendship controlled," they added.

A more encouraging result in this regard, is that more prior contact with people of the opposite sexual orientation (another of the recorded measures) was associated with less negative feelings during new interactions of that kind.

"Our results offer several hopeful findings about the potential for comfortable social interactions with out-group members," Cook and his colleagues concluded. "When people make friends with others who have a different ethnic identity, friendship appears to largely convey the same interpersonal comfort experienced among in-group friends. Sexual orientation may entail more enduring barriers to comfortable inter-group interactions, particularly for males, but here too we found grounds for optimism."

ResearchBlogging.orgCook, J., Calcagno, J., Arrow, H., and Malle, B. (2011). Friendship trumps ethnicity (but not sexual orientation): Comfort and discomfort in inter-group interactions. British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02051.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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