What Is the Contact Hypothesis in Psychology?

Can getting to know members of other groups reduce prejudice?

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The contact hypothesis is a theory in psychology which suggests that prejudice and conflict between groups can be reduced if members of the groups interact with each other.

Key Takeaways: Contact Hypothesis

  • The contact hypothesis suggests that interpersonal contact between groups can reduce prejudice.
  • According to Gordon Allport, who first proposed the theory, four conditions are necessary to reduce prejudice: equal status, common goals, cooperation, and institutional support.
  • While the contact hypothesis has been studied most often in the context of racial prejudice, researchers have found that contact was able to reduce prejudice against members of a variety of marginalized groups.

Historical Background

The contact hypothesis was developed in the middle of the 20th century by researchers who were interested in understanding how conflict and prejudice could be reduced. Studies in the 1940s and 1950s , for example, found that contact with members of other groups was related to lower levels of prejudice. In one study from 1951 , researchers looked at how living in segregated or desegregated housing units was related to prejudice and found that, in New York (where housing was desegregated), white study participants reported lower prejudice than white participants in Newark (where housing was still segregated).

One of the key early theorists studying the contact hypothesis was Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport , who published the influential book The Nature of Prejudice in 1954. In his book, Allport reviewed previous research on intergroup contact and prejudice. He found that contact reduced prejudice in some instances, but it wasn’t a panacea—there were also cases where intergroup contact made prejudice and conflict worse. In order to account for this, Allport sought to figure out when contact worked to reduce prejudice successfully, and he developed four conditions that have been studied by later researchers.

Allport’s Four Conditions

According to Allport, contact between groups is most likely to reduce prejudice if the following four conditions are met:

  • The members of the two groups have equal status. Allport believed that contact in which members of one group are treated as subordinate wouldn’t reduce prejudice—and could actually make things worse.
  • The members of the two groups have common goals.
  • The members of the two groups work cooperatively. Allport wrote , “Only the type of contact that leads people to do things together is likely to result in changed attitudes.”
  • There is institutional support for the contact (for example, if group leaders or other authority figures support the contact between groups).

Evaluating the Contact Hypothesis

In the years since Allport published his original study, researchers have sought to test out empirically whether contact with other groups can reduce prejudice. In a 2006 paper, Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp conducted a meta-analysis: they reviewed the results of over 500 previous studies—with approximately 250,000 research participants—and found support for the contact hypothesis. Moreover, they found that these results were not due to self-selection (i.e. people who were less prejudiced choosing to have contact with other groups, and people who were more prejudiced choosing to avoid contact), because contact had a beneficial effect even when participants hadn’t chosen whether or not to have contact with members of other groups.

While the contact hypothesis has been studied most often in the context of racial prejudice, the researchers found that contact was able to reduce prejudice against members of a variety of marginalized groups. For example, contact was able to reduce prejudice based on sexual orientation and prejudice against people with disabilities. The researchers also found that contact with members of one group not only reduced prejudice towards that particular group, but reduced prejudice towards members of other groups as well.

What about Allport’s four conditions? The researchers found a larger effect on prejudice reduction when at least one of Allport’s conditions was met. However, even in studies that didn’t meet Allport’s conditions, prejudice was still reduced—suggesting that Allport’s conditions may improve relationships between groups, but they aren’t strictly necessary.

Why Does Contact Reduce Prejudice?

Researchers have suggested that contact between groups can reduce prejudice because it reduces feelings of anxiety (people may be anxious about interacting with members of a group they have had little contact with). Contact may also reduce prejudice because it increases empathy and helps people to see things from the other group’s perspective. According to psychologist Thomas Pettigrew and his colleagues , contact with another group allows people “to sense how outgroup members feel and view the world.”

Psychologist John Dovidio and his colleagues suggested that contact may reduce prejudice because it changes how we categorize others. One effect of contact can be decategorization , which involves seeing someone as an individual, rather than as only a member of their group. Another outcome of contact can be recategorization , in which people no longer see someone as part of a group that they’re in conflict with, but rather as a member of a larger, shared group.

Another reason why contact is beneficial is because it fosters the formation of friendships across group lines.

Limitations and New Research Directions

Researchers have acknowledged that intergroup contact can backfire , especially if the situation is stressful, negative, or threatening, and the group members did not choose to have contact with the other group. In his 2019 book The Power of Human , psychology researcher Adam Waytz suggested that power dynamics may complicate intergroup contact situations, and that attempts to reconcile groups that are in conflict need to consider whether there is a power imbalance between the groups. For example, he suggested that, in situations where there is a power imbalance, interactions between group members may be more likely to be productive if the less powerful group is given the opportunity to express what their experiences have been, and if the more powerful group is encouraged to practice empathy and seeing things from the less powerful group’s perspective.

Can Contact Promote Allyship?

One especially promising possibility is that contact between groups might encourage more powerful majority group members to work as allies —that is, to work to end oppression and systematic injustices. For example, Dovidio and his colleagues suggested that “contact also provides a potentially powerful opportunity for majority-group members to foster political solidarity with the minority group.” Similarly, Tropp—one of the co-authors of the meta-analysis on contact and prejudice— tells New York Magazine’s The Cut that “there’s also the potential for contact to change the future behavior of historically advantaged groups to benefit the disadvantaged.”

While contact between groups isn’t a panacea, it’s a powerful tool to reduce conflict and prejudice—and it may even encourage members of more powerful groups to become allies who advocate for the rights of members of marginalized groups.

Sources and Additional Reading:

  • Allport, G. W. The Nature of Prejudice . Oxford, England: Addison-Wesley, 1954. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1954-07324-000
  • Dovidio, John F., et al. “Reducing Intergroup Bias Through Intergroup Contact: Twenty Years of Progress and Future Directions.”  Group Processes & Intergroup Relations , vol. 20, no. 5, 2017, pp. 606-620. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430217712052
  • Pettigrew, Thomas F., et al. “Recent Advances in Intergroup Contact Theory.”  International Journal of Intercultural Relations , vol. 35 no. 3, 2011, pp. 271-280. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2011.03.001
  • Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Linda R. Tropp. “A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , vol. 90, no. 5, 2006, pp. 751-783. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.90.5.751
  • Singal, Jesse. “The Contact Hypothesis Offers Hope for the World.” New York Magazine: The Cut , 10 Feb. 2017. https://www.thecut.com/2017/02/the-contact-hypothesis-offers-hope-for-the-world.html
  • Waytz, Adam. The Power of Human: How Our Shared Humanity Can Help Us Create a Better World . W.W. Norton, 2019.
  • What Was the Robbers Cave Experiment in Psychology?
  • What Is a Microaggression? Everyday Insults With Harmful Effects
  • Understanding Social Identity Theory and Its Impact on Behavior
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  • Implicit Bias: What It Means and How It Affects Behavior
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  • Understanding the Big Five Personality Traits
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Contact Hypothesis theory explained

Contact Hypothesis - toolshero

Contact Hypothesis Theory: this article explains the Contact Hypothesis Theory in a practical way. Next to what it is, this article also highlights the intergroup contact and prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination, the conditions and contact hypothesis examples. After reading you will understand the basics of this psychology theory. Enjoy reading!

What is the Contact Hypothesis?

The contact hypothesis is a psychology theory suggesting that prejudice and conflict between groups can be reduced by allowing members of those groups to interact with one another. This notion is also called intra-group contact. Prejudice and conflict usually arise between majority and minority group members.

The background to the contact hypothesis

Social psychologist Gordon Allport is credited with conducting the first studies on intergroup contact.

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Allport is also known for this research in the field of personalities . After the Second World War, social scientists and policymakers concentrated mainly on interracial contact. Allport brought these studies together in his study of intergroup contact.

In 1954, Allport published his first hypothesis concerning intergroup contact in the journal of personality and social psychology. The main premise of his article stated that intergroup contact was one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between groups.

Allport claimed that contact management and interpersonal contact could produce positive effects against with stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, leading to better and more worthwhile interaction between two or more groups.

Over the years since Allport’s original article, the hypothesis has been expanded by social scientists and used for research into reducing prejudice relating to racism, disability, women and LGBTQ + people.

Empirical and meta analytical research into intergroup contact is still ongoing today.

Intergroup contact and prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination

The term “prejudice” is used to refer to a preconceived, negative view of another person, based on perceived qualities such as political affiliation, skin colour, faith, gender, disability, religion, sexuality, language, height, education, and more.

Prejudice can also refer to an unfounded belief, or to pigeonhole people or groups. Gordon Allport, the originator of the contact hypothesis, defined prejudice as a feeling, positive or negative, prior to actual experience, that is not based on fact.

Stereotypes, as defined in the contact hypothesis, are generalisations about groups of people. Stereotypes are often based on sexual orientation, religion, race, or age. Stereotypes can be positive, but are usually negative. Either way, a stereotype is a generalisation that does not take into account differences at the individual level.

Prejudice and stereotypes concern biased views regarding others, but discrimination consists of targeted action against individuals or groups based on race, religion, gender or other identifying features. Discrimination takes many forms, from pay gaps and glass ceilings to unfair housing policies.

In recent years, more and more new legislation and regulations have been introduced, designed to tackle discrimination and prejudice reduction in, for example, the workplace. It is not however possible to eliminate discrimination through legislation. Discrimination is a complex issue relating to the justice, education and political systems in a society.

Conditions for intergroup contact to reduce prejudice

Gordon Allport claimed that prejudice and conflict between groups can be reduced by having equal status contact between groups in pursuit of common goals. This effect is even greater when contact is officially sanctioned.

This can be achieved through legislation, but also through local customs and practice. In other words, there are four conditions under which prejudice can be reduced. These are:

Equal status

Both groups taking part in the contact situations must play equal roles in the relationship. The members of each group should have similar backgrounds, qualities and other features. Differences in academic background, prosperity or experience should be kept to a minimum.

Common goals

Both groups should seek to serve a higher purpose through the relationship and working together. This is a goal which can only be achieved when the two groups join forces and work together on common initiatives.

Working together

Both groups should work together to achieve their common goals, rather than in competition.

Support from the authorities through legislation

Both groups should recognise a single authority, to support contact and collaborative interaction between groups. This contact should be helpful, considerate, and foster the right attitude towards one another.

Examples of the contact hypothesis

The effect of greater contact between members of disparate groups has been the basis of many policy decisions advocating racial integration in settings such as schools, housing, workplaces and the military.

The contact hypothesis in the desegregation of education

An example of this is a 1954 landmark court decision by the US Supreme Court. The decision brought about the desegregation of schools. In this ruling, the contact hypothesis was used to demonstrate that this would increase self-esteem among racial minorities and respect between groups in general.

Studies into the implications of this decision in subsequent years did not always yield positive results. There have been studies showing that prejudice was actually reinforced and that self-esteem did not improve among minorities. The reason for this has already been set out above.

Contact between groups in schools, for example, was not always equal, nor did it take place with social supervision. These are two essential requirements or conditions for improving relationships between disparate groups.

The contact hypothesis in developing education strategies

The contact hypothesis has also proved invaluable in developing cooperative education strategies. The best known of these is the jigsaw classroom technique. This technique involves creating a particular classroom setting where students from various racial backgrounds are brought together in pursuit of a common goal.

In practice this means that students are placed in study groups of 6. The lesson is split into six elements, and each student is assigned one part of those six. That means that each student actually represents one piece in that jigsaw.

For the lesson to succeed, students need to trust one another based on their knowledge. This increases interdependence within the group, which is necessary for improving relationships between people.

Reducing prejudice

Besides it being very important to know how prejudice arises, studies on prejudice also focus on the potential to reduce prejudice. One technique widely believed to be highly effective is training people to become more empathetic towards members of other groups.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes makes it easier to think about what you would do in a similar situation.

Other techniques and methods used to reduce prejudice are:

  • Contact with members of other groups
  • Making others aware of the inconsistencies in their beliefs and values
  • Legislation and regulations which promote fair and equal treatment of people in minority groups
  • Creating public support and awareness

Implication of prejudice and discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination and prejudice can lead to wellbeing issues and substantial financial loss to the organisation, along with a sharp fall in employee and company morale. According to the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults face prejudice or discrimination at some time.

For some this happens at work; others face it as part of everyday life in society. Most people are aware of the negative effects this can have on employees, but discrimination and prejudice going unchecked can also have serious consequences.

Firstly, treating people unfairly can contribute to increased stress levels. This in turn leads to more wellbeing issues for those who are personally harmed or attacked. When someone is constantly worrying about discrimination or religion, he or she is forced to think about that thing all day long. Too much stress reduces sleep quality and suppresses appetite. When this becomes the norm for someone, they are going to feel chronically ill or down.

Prejudice also has a negative effect on the company in general. Companies may even suffer financial loss as a consequence. Employees who feel ill or down because of social issues are more likely to resign. The company then incurs substantial costs training new people.

Another obvious negative outcome for organisations is employees who hate management if they feel they are not being treated fairly. This negative attitude from employees has an effect on individual employee performance and ultimately also on the performance of the organisation as a whole.

The contact hypothesis in summary

The contact hypothesis, of which the intergroup contact theory is a part, is a theory from sociology and psychology which suggests that problems such as discrimination and prejudice can be drastically reduced by having more contact with people from different social groups. This notion is also called intergroup contact. Prejudice and conflict usually arise between majority and minority group members.

The social psychologist credited for his contributions in this field is Gordon Allport. Allport brought together several studies of interracial contact after the Second World War and developed the intergroup contact theory from those. His hypothesis was published in 1954. In the decades which followed, the theory was widely used in initiatives to tackle these social problems.

Prejudice is often a negative evaluation of others based on qualities such as political affiliation, age, skin colour, height, gender or other identifying features. Stereotyping resembles prejudice, but is in fact making generalisations about groups of people.

This social failing is also based on religion, gender or other identifying features which say nothing about the group as a whole. Discrimination goes a step further than prejudice and stereotypes. Discrimination is about actually treating people in a negative way based on particular identifying features such as race or education.

Gordon Allport developed four requirements or conditions necessary for reducing prejudice through increased intergroup contact. The first is that both groups should have an equal status. The members of each group should have similar backgrounds, qualities or social status.

Differences in academic background, prosperity or experience should be kept to a minimum. The second is to have common goals. The groups should not be brought together without some purpose. As mentioned too in the example above in the jigsaw classroom section, dependence on one another is stimulating, which is a prerequisite for social equality and improved relationships. This is linked to the third condition: working together.

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Now it is your turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of the contact hypothesis? Have you ever faced prejudice or discrimination? Have you ever experienced the positive effects of contact? Had you ever heard of this theory before? Do you think eliminating discrimination and prejudice is possible? What is your view on opportunity of outcome vs opportunity of equality? Do you have any other advice or additional comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  • Amir, Y. (1969). Contact hypothesis in ethnic relations . Psychological bulletin, 71(5), 319.
  • Brewer, M. B., & Miller, N. (1984). Beyond the contact hypothesis: Theoretical . Groups in contact: The psychology of desegregation, 281.
  • Paluck, E. L., Green, S. A., & Green, D. P. (2019). The contact hypothesis re-evaluated . Behavioural Public Policy, 3(2), 129-158.
  • Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2005). Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis: Its history and influence . On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport, 262-277.

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All you need is contact

November 2001, Vol 32, No. 10

A longstanding line of research that aims to combat bias among conflicting groups springs from a theory called the "contact hypothesis." Developed in the 1950s by Gordon Allport, PhD, the theory holds that contact between two groups can promote tolerance and acceptance, but only under certain conditions, such as equal status among groups and common goals. Since the theory's inception, psychologists have added more and more criteria to what is required of groups in order for "contact" to work.

Recently, however, University of California, Santa Cruz research psychologist Thomas Pettigrew, PhD, has turned this research finding on its head. In a new meta-analysis of 500 studies, he finds that all that's needed for greater understanding between groups is contact, period, in all but the most hostile and threatening conditions. There is, however, a larger positive effect if some of the extra conditions are met.

His analysis turned up another unexpected finding that also runs counter to the direction of the field. The reason contact works, his analysis finds, is not purely or even mostly cognitive, but emotional.

"Your stereotypes about the other group don't necessarily change," Pettigrew explains, "but you grow to like them anyway."

Pettigrew is currently submitting his study for review; the basic findings can also be found in a chapter by him and Linda Tropp, PhD, in the book "Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination" (Erlbaum, 2000).


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Contact Hypothesis Definition, Conditions & Limitations

Kelly earned a PhD in Microbiology and immunology from the University of Louisville. She has experience doing scientific research as well as teaching.

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Table of Contents

What is the contact hypothesis, conditions of intergroup contact, limitations of the contact hypothesis, examples of the contact hypothesis, lesson summary, what is an example of the contact hypothesis.

An example of the contact hypothesis is the Robbers Cave Experiment. This experiment showed that competition amongst groups over finite resources leads to increased tension and prejudice. Alternatively, working together towards a common goal can decrease prejudice.

How does the contact hypothesis work?

The contact hypothesis is a theory that explains that intergroup contact can reduce prejudice amongst the members of two different groups. The basis of the theory is that consideration of different people as individuals rather than a part of a designated group leads to a reduction in tension.

Prejudice is a presumption, belief, or judgment of another person rooted in their membership in a specific faction of people. Prejudice is generally negative and stereotypical and can be the basis of differential treatment toward people. In society, prejudices towards specific groups can occur based on ethnicity, sex, religion, social class, and other factors.

The contact hypothesis is the theory that contact amongst individuals of different groups can decrease prejudice amongst the groups. The contact hypothesis is rooted in the idea that regarding people as individuals rather than members of a specific group leads to a lessening of tension or conflict. Research on the contact hypothesis has established that contact amongst groups is not always enough to reduce prejudice. However, certain conditions of contact amongst groups facilitate the diminution of prejudice.

Intergroup Contact Theory

Gordon Allport established the intergroup contact hypothesis in the 1950s. Allport authored a book titled The Nature of Prejudice in 1955, where he explained his intergroup contact theory. Allport proposed that intergroup contact is a compelling strategy for improving group sentiment. Allport's argument stated that prejudice is more likely to wane when certain conditions are met.

In the early 20th century, Social Darwinists had argued that contact amongst various groups frequently resulted in contention. This proposition was founded on the idea that groups generally see their perspective as better than other groups. Therefore disagreement and animosity amongst groups were to be expected. As a result, researchers in social psychology cautiously explored conditions upon which groups could interact to reduce prejudice. Robin Williams Jr., a sociologist at Cornell University, published an assemblage of over one hundred such conditions. Allport's hypothesis pinpointed four conditions that would provide the most benefit from contact between groups.

In 2006, a research study completed by Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp provided important evidence bolstering the contact hypothesis. Analysis of more than 500 completed investigations showed that contact between individuals or groups reduced prejudice. Additionally, prejudice was decreased for members of several different marginalized groups.

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  • 0:05 Contact Hypothesis
  • 1:00 Failure of Contact
  • 2:36 When Contact Works
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary

In Allport's theory, four primary conditions need to be met to derive the most benefits from intergroup contact. The members of the groups must have:

  • equal status,
  • common goals,
  • intergroup cooperation,
  • support of authorities, and
  • institutions.

Allport proposed that the group members must have equal status contact for the most impact. He explains that if one group were treated as lesser or inferior to the other group, prejudice would not diminish. Additionally, he explained that the groups working cooperatively towards a common goal mediate change. Allport's fourth condition was that the leadership or authorities of the groups approved of their contact.

One criticism of Allport's hypothesis is that the four criteria for intergroup contact are difficult to achieve in a real-world situation. As mentioned earlier, Tropp and Pettigrew's analysis showed that meeting all four of Allport's conditions produced the most pronounced reductions in prejudice amongst groups. However, that meeting only some of the conditions can still reduce prejudice. There is also evidence that the potential benefits of intergroup contact vary case-by-case and are affected by the groups' level of prejudice and characteristics. The result of intergroup contact can be influenced by the groups' ideology, religion, and political ideals.

Research also suggests that contact between individuals from different groups can have detrimental effects under certain circumstances. Contact can have different effects for the majority group than for the outgroup. For example, members of a majority group can leave an intergroup contact with more positive feelings towards the outgroup, while members leave with more negative feelings toward the majority group.

Other times, seemingly positive interactions between the majority group and the outgroup can have unexpected negative effects. For example, following positive contact, there is a tendency for the outgroup to lose motivation to advocate collectively for the betterment of their group in society. In this case, a focus on the groups' commonalities may result in a weakened focus on inequalities and unfair treatment.

An example of the contact hypothesis is the jigsaw classroom method, a cooperative education program. In the jigsaw method, six diverse students are placed in a group with a common goal, and each student completes one part of the assignment. Each student has a responsibility and contribution to the common goal in this configuration. Students also have support from the teacher and broader institution. The use of the jigsaw classroom method has been shown to decrease prejudice and stereotyping . Additionally, minority students show improvements in self-esteem.

Another example of the contact hypothesis is a study where individuals only imagined contact with a group member. Individuals taking part in the study were directed to imagine meeting a member of an outgroup and then questioned their attitude toward the outgroup. For example, a young person was told to imagine meeting an elderly person. The control participants were directed to imagine an outdoor setting. After this exercise, participants were given a choice to meet a person of advanced age or a young person, and their preferences on which type of person they'd prefer to meet with were recorded. The study found that imagining meeting an older person increased the willingness of the younger person to meet with an older person. These participants were willing to meet with either the younger or older person, whereas the control group was more likely to prefer meeting the younger person.

In a well-known Robbers Cave Experiment , Muzafer Sherif showed that competition over finite resources leads to group conflict and tension. Working together towards a common goal can decrease prejudice. In this experiment, boys were divided into two groups and given opportunities to develop an allegiance to their group. Competition between the two groups increased prejudice, which was apparent from the boys' physical and verbal behavior. Sherif showed that contact between groups only escalated tensions. Alternatively, working together towards a common objective served to decrease prejudice.

Desegregation in United States schools is an example of how contact alone is insufficient to reduce prejudice. Research during and shortly after the 1954 Supreme Court decision showed that desegregation in schools increased prejudice. This finding contributed to several aspects of the situation, including that interracial contact between students did not always have equal status. Additionally, there was incomplete support from the authorities or institutions.

Prejudice is the presumption, belief, or unfair judgment of another person founded on their membership in a specific group. The contact hypothesis is a theory that argues that contact amongst members of different groups decreases prejudice amongst the members of the groups. Gordon Allport explained in his 1955 publication The Nature of Prejudice that intergroup contact is a helpful strategy for improving groups' attitudes towards one another when specific conditions are met. The four conditions that improve the likelihood that prejudice will diminish are that the groups must have equal status, common goals, intergroup cooperation, and the support of the authorities and institutions.

There has been much research into intergroup contact's potential benefits and harms. A large analysis done by Pettigrew and Tropp showed that contact between groups decreases prejudice in many instances, even when not all of Allport's conditions are met. In the Robbers Cave Experiment, researcher Muzafer Sherif showed that competition increased prejudice amongst two groups of boys while working together towards a common goal decreased prejudice. The desegregation of U.S. schools in the 1950s is an example that contact solely is not enough to reduce prejudice. These findings are attributed to students from different groups not always having equal status or total support from authorities and institutions.

Video Transcript

Contact hypothesis.

Joey and Jimmy go to the same camp. Joey is part of a team at the camp called the Eagles, and Jimmy belongs to another group named the Rattlers. The Eagles and the Rattlers compete in games and activities, and the members of the groups hate each other. Joey can't stand Jimmy because he is a Rattler.

Prejudice occurs when a person judges another person because of a group they belong to. Often, prejudice refers to racial or gender groups, but Joey is demonstrating prejudice against Rattlers when he decides he doesn't like Jimmy just because he belongs to the Rattlers.

For many years, psychologists have tried to figure out how to overcome prejudice. One theory is the contact hypothesis . The contact hypothesis says that bringing members from different groups together will reduce prejudice. The idea is that exposure to others of different groups will reduce your prejudice for those groups.

Failure of Contact

So, according to the contact hypothesis, the camp can reduce Joey's prejudice by having the Eagles and the Rattlers spend time together. This is what the Supreme Court tried to do in 1954 when they banned segregation in schools. The idea was that, through contact in schools, racism would be reduced.

The results did not support the contact hypothesis, though. Studies found that, following desegregation, racism actually increased, not decreased. It seemed that mere contact was not enough to do away with racism.

Psychologist Muzafer Sherif decided to find out why contact didn't work. In 1961, he took a group of boys and set up a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys were divided into teams, including the Rattlers and the Eagles. Each team participated in team-building activities and then competed with the other team. Like Joey and Jimmy, the boys were hostile to the other team. Prejudice against the other team became the norm, and violence and name-calling began.

Then Sherif put the teams together, offering them lots of opportunities to come in contact with each other with events like watching a movie or firecrackers. But, as with integration in schools, mere contact did not work. The hostilities continued.

But, Sherif didn't stop there. He gave the groups problems that they had to solve: the water supply had been vandalized; they had to raise money to go to a movie. The groups were forced to work together towards the larger goal. It was while working together that the hostilities between the Rattlers and the Eagles finally subsided.

When Contact Works

Why did working together towards a goal work when mere contact didn't? Another psychologist, Gordon Allport, believed that there are six requirements to reduce prejudice. Sherif's Robbers Cave experiment hit all six, which may be why the hostilities were reduced.

Allport's six conditions of intergroup contact are:

  • Mutual interdependence - the two groups must depend on each other in some way
  • A common goal
  • Equal status of group members - no one group can be favored over the other
  • The chance for informal interactions between group members - allowing members of opposing groups to interact outside of the structure of the project is an important part of reducing prejudice
  • Multiple contacts with several members of the opposing group
  • Social norms, or rules, in place that promote equality between groups

Once all six of these conditions are met, contact has shown to be successful at reducing prejudice.

Contact hypothesis is the belief that contact with another group will reduce prejudice for that group. Many studies, including Sherif's Robbers Cave experiment, have shown that mere contact is not enough to reduce prejudice. However, there are six conditions of interaction that have shown to reduce prejudice. They are: mutual interdependence, a common goal, equal status of group members, the chance for informal interactions and multiple contacts with members of the opposing group, and social norms in place that promote equality between groups.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you'll be able to:

  • Define prejudice
  • Discuss the contact hypothesis as it relates to prejudice
  • Explain why mere contact with an opposing group is not sufficient to reduce prejudice
  • Describe the results of the Robbers Cave experiment
  • List the six conditions of interaction that need to be present in order for contact to reduce prejudice

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Intergroup Contact Theory

  • First Online: 02 July 2019

Cite this chapter

contact hypothesis definition psychology

  • Oliver Christ 3 &
  • Mathias Kauff 3  

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Bringing members of different social groups into contact is thought to be as one of the most promising approaches for improving intergroup relations. Indeed, a plethora of studies has shown that this intergroup contact is an effective means not only to reduce mutual prejudice but also to increase trust and forgiveness. In this chapter, we will first review evidence for the effectiveness of intergroup contact and introduce different forms of intergroup contact – direct (i.e., face-to-face contact) as well as more indirect forms of contact (i.e., extended, vicarious, and imagined contact). We will then discuss moderators (e.g., types of in- and outgroup categorization) and mediators (e.g., intergroup anxiety and empathy) of contact effects as well as potential unintended effects of intergroup contact. Finally, we will summarize research on the effectiveness of intergroup contact interventions and give two examples of such interventions that have been implemented in the context of conflictual intergroup relations (i.e., Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda).

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Christ, O., Kauff, M. (2019). Intergroup Contact Theory. In: Sassenberg, K., Vliek, M.L.W. (eds) Social Psychology in Action. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-13788-5_10

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contact hypothesis definition psychology

Contact Hypothesis: Psychology Definition, History & Examples

The Contact Hypothesis posits that interpersonal interaction between groups can reduce prejudice and intergroup conflict . This concept , rooted in social psychology, suggests that under appropriate conditions, cooperative contact can diminish stereotypes and improve relations among people from diverse backgrounds.

Originating from the work of psychologist Gordon Allport in 1954, the hypothesis has been a foundational framework for understanding and addressing social division. Subsequent empirical research has tested and refined the conditions under which contact reduces animosity, such as equal group status, common goals, and institutional support.

Examples of the Contact Hypothesis in action include integrated education programs and community-building activities.

This introduction outlines the Contact Hypothesis by presenting its definition, tracing its historical development, and illustrating its application through real-world examples.

Table of Contents

The Contact Hypothesis is the idea that when people from different groups interact with each other in certain ways, it can help to reduce prejudice and challenge stereotypes.

It suggests that if people have equal status, common goals, cooperate with each other, and have support from authorities, they are more likely to change their prejudiced attitudes through contact with others.

Many studies have supported this idea and explored the complexities of intergroup interactions.

The Contact Hypothesis, a term in psychology, originated in the midst of the 20th century as a response to the prevalent racial segregation issues. It was first formulated by psychologist Gordon Allport, who proposed that interpersonal contact could effectively reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members, given certain conditions. Allport’s ideas on the Contact Hypothesis were presented in his influential 1954 book, ‘The Nature of Prejudice’, which laid the groundwork for understanding how intergroup contact could bring about attitude changes and reduce intergroup conflict.

Since its inception, the Contact Hypothesis has undergone empirical investigation and has been scrutinized for its applicability in various scenarios and populations. Researchers have systematically tested and refined the theory , exploring different variables that may influence its effectiveness. These variables include factors such as equal status between groups, common goals, and institutional support.

One significant event that contributed to the evolution of the Contact Hypothesis was the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. This Supreme Court decision declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, highlighting the need for contact between racial groups to promote integration and reduce prejudice.

Another study that furthered the understanding of the Contact Hypothesis was the Robbers Cave experiment conducted by Muzafer Sherif and colleagues in 1954. This study demonstrated the potential of intergroup contact to reduce hostility and create harmonious relations between groups.

Over the years, further research has expanded our knowledge of the Contact Hypothesis, examining its effectiveness in various contexts, such as racial, ethnic, and cultural relations. The work of notable figures such as Thomas F. Pettigrew, John F. Dovidio, and Samuel L. Gaertner has played a crucial role in advancing the theory and providing empirical evidence for its application.

  • In a neighborhood with diverse cultural backgrounds, a community center organizes regular events where residents can come together and engage in activities like cooking classes, sports tournaments, and art workshops. Through these shared experiences, people from different backgrounds have the opportunity to interact and learn from one another, breaking down stereotypes and fostering understanding.
  • A company implements a mentorship program where senior employees are paired with junior employees from different departments. By working closely together on projects and tasks, individuals from different backgrounds gain a greater appreciation for each other’s skills and perspectives, leading to improved collaboration and a more harmonious work environment .
  • In a school, a teacher organizes a class project that requires students to work in groups with peers who have different strengths and abilities. Through this collaborative project, students develop empathy and understanding for their classmates, realizing that everyone has something valuable to contribute. This experience helps break down social barriers and reduces prejudice among students.
  • At a town hall meeting, community members gather to discuss a controversial issue that has divided the town. The facilitator ensures that individuals with opposing viewpoints are given equal opportunities to express their opinions and listen to others. By engaging in respectful dialogue, community members begin to understand each other’s perspectives, leading to increased empathy and a more cohesive community.
  • In a sports team, players from diverse backgrounds are encouraged to share their cultural traditions and experiences during team bonding activities. Through these interactions, teammates develop a deeper appreciation for each other’s backgrounds and cultures, fostering a sense of unity and camaraderie on the field.

Related Terms

Understanding the Contact Hypothesis involves familiarizing oneself with several related terms that elucidate its application in social psychology.

Prejudice, a negative attitude towards a person based on their group membership, is a central concept that the Contact Hypothesis aims to reduce.

Stereotype is another pertinent term, referring to an overgeneralized belief about a particular category of people. The efficacy of contact is often measured against changes in stereotypical thinking.

Intergroup anxiety , which denotes the discomfort one might feel when interacting with members of a different group, is a psychological state that the hypothesis posits can be alleviated through increased contact.

Equal status contact emphasizes that for contact to be effective in reducing prejudice, the groups involved must interact on an equal standing.

Other closely linked terms to the Contact Hypothesis include:

  • Ingroup bias: This term refers to the tendency of individuals to favor members of their own group over members of other groups. Ingroup bias can contribute to the development and maintenance of prejudice. The Contact Hypothesis aims to reduce ingroup bias by promoting positive interactions between different groups.
  • Social norms: These are the shared expectations and rules that guide behavior within a group or society. Social norms can influence prejudice and discrimination by shaping the attitudes and behaviors that are deemed acceptable. The Contact Hypothesis suggests that promoting positive contact between different groups can help shift social norms towards more inclusive and accepting attitudes.
  • Empathy: This term refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy plays a crucial role in reducing prejudice as it allows individuals to connect with and relate to members of different groups. The Contact Hypothesis suggests that increased contact can lead to the development of empathy, which in turn can help break down stereotypes and reduce prejudice.

While these related terms are closely linked to the Contact Hypothesis, they each have a distinct focus and contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence intergroup relations and prejudice reduction.

Consistently, research on the Contact Hypothesis is supported by a robust body of scholarly work, with key studies and theoretical advancements cited across numerous academic articles and books. These references underpin the empirical evidence for the Contact Hypothesis and are critical to advancing the understanding of intergroup relations.

The sources range from seminal works by Gordon W. Allport (Allport, 1954), who originally formulated the hypothesis, to contemporary quantitative meta-analyses that evaluate the conditions and outcomes of intergroup contact (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2011).

In analyzing these references, scholars scrutinize the methodology and contexts of studies, seeking patterns that affirm or challenge the hypothesis. This rigorous examination ensures that the Contact Hypothesis is not a static concept but a dynamic framework subject to refinement as new data emerges from diverse social contexts.


Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Addison-Wesley.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751-783.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2011). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. Psychology Press.

These references provide academically credible sources for further reading on the Contact Hypothesis and its foundational studies.


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The contact hypothesis predicts that racial prejudice diminishes when whites and non-whites interact in a setting that fosters cooperation among people of equal status. This hypothesis has seldom, if ever, been tested using randomized experimentation outside the laboratory. This chapter reports the results of a randomized field experiment in which white students were randomly assigned to Outward Bound two- and three-week wilderness courses. In the control group, all the students in each course were non-Hispanic whites. In the treatment group, most of the students were non-Hispanic whites, but at least three of the participants were African-Americans. One month after completing the course, the white participants were interviewed by telephone. As expected, the group that experienced a racially heterogeneous environment expressed greater levels of tolerance than the control group. Although these findings require replication, the research design provides a template for future field-experiments examining the validity of the contact hypothesis.

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Gordon Willard Allport (1897—1967)

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The proposition by the US psychologist Gordon W(illard) Allport (1897–1967) that sheer social contact between social groups is sufficient to reduce intergroup prejudice. Empirical evidence suggests that this is so only in certain circumstances.

From:   contact hypothesis   in  A Dictionary of Psychology »

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Encyclopedia of psychology


The contact hypothesis is a theory that suggests that increased contact between members of two different social groups can lead to a reduction in prejudice and increased intergroup understanding and cooperation (Allport, 1954). The contact hypothesis was first proposed by American psychologist Gordon Allport in 1954, and has since been tested and supported with empirical evidence in a variety of contexts.

The contact hypothesis is based on two underlying assumptions. The first is that contact between members of different groups will lead to intergroup understanding and a reduction in prejudice. The second is that the contact must be characterized by certain conditions in order to be effective. These conditions include equal status between the two groups, cooperation between them, a common goal, and the support of authorities (Allport, 1954).

Research examining the contact hypothesis has found that it can be effective in reducing prejudice and increasing intergroup understanding. For example, in a study by Pettigrew and Tropp (2006), participants who were exposed to intergroup contact in the form of structured conversations between members of different groups showed decreased prejudice and increased intergroup understanding. Similarly, a study by Desforges and Aboud (2003) found that intergroup contact was associated with decreased prejudice and increased acceptance of the outgroup.

Despite the evidence supporting the contact hypothesis, there are also limitations to its effectiveness. In some cases, contact between two groups can lead to increased prejudice rather than decreased prejudice. This is often due to the presence of negative stereotypes and negative emotions between the two groups (Desforges & Aboud, 2003). In addition, contact between two groups may not be enough to reduce prejudice if it is not accompanied by other forms of intergroup interaction, such as cooperative activities (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).

In conclusion, the contact hypothesis is a theory that suggests that increased contact between members of two different social groups can lead to a reduction in prejudice and increased intergroup understanding and cooperation. Research examining the contact hypothesis has found that it can be effective in reducing prejudice and increasing intergroup understanding, although there are also limitations to its effectiveness.

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Desforges, D. M., & Aboud, F. E. (2003). Effects of direct and indirect contact on prejudice: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 431-446.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751-783.

Related terms

Crisis counseling, critical-incident technique (cit), criterion variable, cross-modal association, cross-cultural psychology.




What does contact hypothesis mean?

Definitions for contact hypothesis con·tact hy·poth·e·sis, this dictionary definitions page includes all the possible meanings, example usage and translations of the word contact hypothesis ., wikipedia rate this definition: 0.0 / 0 votes.

Contact hypothesis

In psychology and other social sciences, the contact hypothesis suggests that intergroup contact under appropriate conditions can effectively reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members. Following WWII and the desegregation of the military and other public institutions, policymakers and social scientists had turned an eye towards the policy implications of interracial contact. Of them, social psychologist Gordon Allport united early research in this vein under intergroup contact theory. In 1954, Allport published The Nature of Prejudice, in which he outlined the most widely cited form of the hypothesis. The premise of Allport's hypothesis states that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact could be one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members. According to Allport, properly managed contact should reduce issues of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination that commonly occur between rival groups and lead to better intergroup interactions. In the decades following Allport's book, social scientists expanded and applied the contact hypothesis towards the reduction of prejudice beyond racism, including prejudice towards physically and mentally disabled people, women, and LGB< people, in hundreds of different studies.In some subfields of criminology, psychology, and sociology, intergroup contact has been described as one of the best ways to improve relations among groups in conflict. Nonetheless, the effects of intergroup contact vary widely from context to context, and empirical inquiry continues to this day.

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What is The Null Hypothesis & When Do You Reject The Null Hypothesis

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A null hypothesis is a statistical concept suggesting no significant difference or relationship between measured variables. It’s the default assumption unless empirical evidence proves otherwise.

The null hypothesis states no relationship exists between the two variables being studied (i.e., one variable does not affect the other).

The null hypothesis is the statement that a researcher or an investigator wants to disprove.

Testing the null hypothesis can tell you whether your results are due to the effects of manipulating ​ the dependent variable or due to random chance. 

How to Write a Null Hypothesis

Null hypotheses (H0) start as research questions that the investigator rephrases as statements indicating no effect or relationship between the independent and dependent variables.

It is a default position that your research aims to challenge or confirm.

For example, if studying the impact of exercise on weight loss, your null hypothesis might be:

There is no significant difference in weight loss between individuals who exercise daily and those who do not.

Examples of Null Hypotheses

Research QuestionNull Hypothesis
Do teenagers use cell phones more than adults?Teenagers and adults use cell phones the same amount.
Do tomato plants exhibit a higher rate of growth when planted in compost rather than in soil?Tomato plants show no difference in growth rates when planted in compost rather than soil.
Does daily meditation decrease the incidence of depression?Daily meditation does not decrease the incidence of depression.
Does daily exercise increase test performance?There is no relationship between daily exercise time and test performance.
Does the new vaccine prevent infections?The vaccine does not affect the infection rate.
Does flossing your teeth affect the number of cavities?Flossing your teeth has no effect on the number of cavities.

When Do We Reject The Null Hypothesis? 

We reject the null hypothesis when the data provide strong enough evidence to conclude that it is likely incorrect. This often occurs when the p-value (probability of observing the data given the null hypothesis is true) is below a predetermined significance level.

If the collected data does not meet the expectation of the null hypothesis, a researcher can conclude that the data lacks sufficient evidence to back up the null hypothesis, and thus the null hypothesis is rejected. 

Rejecting the null hypothesis means that a relationship does exist between a set of variables and the effect is statistically significant ( p > 0.05).

If the data collected from the random sample is not statistically significance , then the null hypothesis will be accepted, and the researchers can conclude that there is no relationship between the variables. 

You need to perform a statistical test on your data in order to evaluate how consistent it is with the null hypothesis. A p-value is one statistical measurement used to validate a hypothesis against observed data.

Calculating the p-value is a critical part of null-hypothesis significance testing because it quantifies how strongly the sample data contradicts the null hypothesis.

The level of statistical significance is often expressed as a  p  -value between 0 and 1. The smaller the p-value, the stronger the evidence that you should reject the null hypothesis.

Probability and statistical significance in ab testing. Statistical significance in a b experiments

Usually, a researcher uses a confidence level of 95% or 99% (p-value of 0.05 or 0.01) as general guidelines to decide if you should reject or keep the null.

When your p-value is less than or equal to your significance level, you reject the null hypothesis.

In other words, smaller p-values are taken as stronger evidence against the null hypothesis. Conversely, when the p-value is greater than your significance level, you fail to reject the null hypothesis.

In this case, the sample data provides insufficient data to conclude that the effect exists in the population.

Because you can never know with complete certainty whether there is an effect in the population, your inferences about a population will sometimes be incorrect.

When you incorrectly reject the null hypothesis, it’s called a type I error. When you incorrectly fail to reject it, it’s called a type II error.

Why Do We Never Accept The Null Hypothesis?

The reason we do not say “accept the null” is because we are always assuming the null hypothesis is true and then conducting a study to see if there is evidence against it. And, even if we don’t find evidence against it, a null hypothesis is not accepted.

A lack of evidence only means that you haven’t proven that something exists. It does not prove that something doesn’t exist. 

It is risky to conclude that the null hypothesis is true merely because we did not find evidence to reject it. It is always possible that researchers elsewhere have disproved the null hypothesis, so we cannot accept it as true, but instead, we state that we failed to reject the null. 

One can either reject the null hypothesis, or fail to reject it, but can never accept it.

Why Do We Use The Null Hypothesis?

We can never prove with 100% certainty that a hypothesis is true; We can only collect evidence that supports a theory. However, testing a hypothesis can set the stage for rejecting or accepting this hypothesis within a certain confidence level.

The null hypothesis is useful because it can tell us whether the results of our study are due to random chance or the manipulation of a variable (with a certain level of confidence).

A null hypothesis is rejected if the measured data is significantly unlikely to have occurred and a null hypothesis is accepted if the observed outcome is consistent with the position held by the null hypothesis.

Rejecting the null hypothesis sets the stage for further experimentation to see if a relationship between two variables exists. 

Hypothesis testing is a critical part of the scientific method as it helps decide whether the results of a research study support a particular theory about a given population. Hypothesis testing is a systematic way of backing up researchers’ predictions with statistical analysis.

It helps provide sufficient statistical evidence that either favors or rejects a certain hypothesis about the population parameter. 

Purpose of a Null Hypothesis 

  • The primary purpose of the null hypothesis is to disprove an assumption. 
  • Whether rejected or accepted, the null hypothesis can help further progress a theory in many scientific cases.
  • A null hypothesis can be used to ascertain how consistent the outcomes of multiple studies are.

Do you always need both a Null Hypothesis and an Alternative Hypothesis?

The null (H0) and alternative (Ha or H1) hypotheses are two competing claims that describe the effect of the independent variable on the dependent variable. They are mutually exclusive, which means that only one of the two hypotheses can be true. 

While the null hypothesis states that there is no effect in the population, an alternative hypothesis states that there is statistical significance between two variables. 

The goal of hypothesis testing is to make inferences about a population based on a sample. In order to undertake hypothesis testing, you must express your research hypothesis as a null and alternative hypothesis. Both hypotheses are required to cover every possible outcome of the study. 

What is the difference between a null hypothesis and an alternative hypothesis?

The alternative hypothesis is the complement to the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis states that there is no effect or no relationship between variables, while the alternative hypothesis claims that there is an effect or relationship in the population.

It is the claim that you expect or hope will be true. The null hypothesis and the alternative hypothesis are always mutually exclusive, meaning that only one can be true at a time.

What are some problems with the null hypothesis?

One major problem with the null hypothesis is that researchers typically will assume that accepting the null is a failure of the experiment. However, accepting or rejecting any hypothesis is a positive result. Even if the null is not refuted, the researchers will still learn something new.

Why can a null hypothesis not be accepted?

We can either reject or fail to reject a null hypothesis, but never accept it. If your test fails to detect an effect, this is not proof that the effect doesn’t exist. It just means that your sample did not have enough evidence to conclude that it exists.

We can’t accept a null hypothesis because a lack of evidence does not prove something that does not exist. Instead, we fail to reject it.

Failing to reject the null indicates that the sample did not provide sufficient enough evidence to conclude that an effect exists.

If the p-value is greater than the significance level, then you fail to reject the null hypothesis.

Is a null hypothesis directional or non-directional?

A hypothesis test can either contain an alternative directional hypothesis or a non-directional alternative hypothesis. A directional hypothesis is one that contains the less than (“<“) or greater than (“>”) sign.

A nondirectional hypothesis contains the not equal sign (“≠”).  However, a null hypothesis is neither directional nor non-directional.

A null hypothesis is a prediction that there will be no change, relationship, or difference between two variables.

The directional hypothesis or nondirectional hypothesis would then be considered alternative hypotheses to the null hypothesis.

Gill, J. (1999). The insignificance of null hypothesis significance testing.  Political research quarterly ,  52 (3), 647-674.

Krueger, J. (2001). Null hypothesis significance testing: On the survival of a flawed method.  American Psychologist ,  56 (1), 16.

Masson, M. E. (2011). A tutorial on a practical Bayesian alternative to null-hypothesis significance testing.  Behavior research methods ,  43 , 679-690.

Nickerson, R. S. (2000). Null hypothesis significance testing: a review of an old and continuing controversy.  Psychological methods ,  5 (2), 241.

Rozeboom, W. W. (1960). The fallacy of the null-hypothesis significance test.  Psychological bulletin ,  57 (5), 416.

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