Does Travel Reduce Prejudice?
The evidence from intergroup contact theory.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”
Prejudice is a problem of generalization.2 Most people in the world are unfamiliar to us. So when we encounter someone outside our circle of acquaintance, we bring to that interaction a set of prejudgements. For the most part, this is a strength of human cognition. We group together like objects and operation under the assumption that they work similarly, that if we’ve dealt with one instance of an object-like-this before we can deal with the next one in the same way. The mental machinery humans have for this works pretty well for a category like chairs. We also come to any interaction with a chair carrying a set of prejudgements: that it will succeed in its attempt to support our weight, that it won’t be taken aback if we try to sit on it. But the problem becomes more difficult when generalizing about other humans. The stakes are higher.
I came across a passage on this topic recently, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I leaf through every Fourth of July.3 It was on the problem of what Tocqueville calls “general ideas.” God, he writes, “stands in no need of general ideas.” From a God’s eye view, no generalization about other humans is necessary. An omniscient God knows each human in intimate specificity. He sees every nuance of the individual. Tocqueville writes that deity “never feels the necessity of collecting a considerable number of analogous objects under the same form for greater convenience in thinking.” There is no need to rely on preconceptions.
Tocqueville notes that this is obviously not the case for humans. This inadequacy, this reliance on the crutch of generalization, to him is not a strength of cognition but a weakness of humanity. The ability to generalize is “no proof strength,” he argues, “for there are in nature no beings exactly alike, no things precisely identical, no rules indiscriminately and alike applicable to several objects at once.” Generalization, while useful, is often wrong. The upside is convenience: being able to reason about a large number things with a small number of rules. It is often helpful to operate under the assumption that that which appears similar is similar in actuality. The downside comes when we over-apply the rule. Tocqueville writes that this causes the mind “to lose as much in accuracy as it gains in comprehensiveness.” Prejudice, then, is a natural result of our mind’s attempt to deal with the overwhelming messiness of human individuality.4
So that’s why prejudice exists.5
A further question is what we can do about it.
Framed as a problem of generalization, one might think that the root of prejudice—the disease of which it is a symptom—is ignorance. If only, like God, we knew more about other individuals, if we could account for people in their full idiosyncrasy, then we would not overgeneralize about them.
Under this line of reasoning, we are prejudiced mostly against people we don’t know much about. Within our own community, we know the people. We are familiar with both the individuals themselves and the baseline of how one is expected to conduct oneself within those social circles. So our generalizations are for the most part accurate. We don’t over-generalize.
It’s only when we start to reason about communities with which we aren’t familiar that the problems start to occur. These are people with whom we have little experience. We don’t know about their social norms, their beliefs, their way of doing things. We haven’t had much opportunity to encounter them on the terms of individuality, the way we would a friend or acquaintance. Rather our only real impression of them is as an abstraction dangling from a label: a member of that group. And so we’re inclined to go based on what we got, which isn’t all that much. We over-generalize.
If, however, we got to know people from that other group, our prejudices might be alleviated. Equipped with more than supposition and ignorance, we might be able to know people as they actually are and not as we imagine them to be. If we spent time outside our own bubble—out there, where the other kinds of people live—then we would, so the idea goes, become less prejudiced.
This is where travel comes in.
It’s this line of reasoning that inclines people (myself included) to nod along in agreement with that quote from Tony Bourdain, the above one about getting out there and seeing things for yourself. Go on. Cross the river. Eat the food. At least see what it’s like. Form your own opinion. If you don’t go, you’ll never know.
The underlying idea is that in a world in which one increasingly comes into contact with different kinds of people—from different backgrounds, cultures, countries, religions, political ideologies—if you haven’t made an effort to interact with those people on their own terms, your only recourse will be to prejudice. Travel opens us up to those other people in those other worlds; it gives us the opportunity to see that our way of doing things isn’t the only way things can be done. Generalize accordingly.
Over the years, this thesis has been advanced by many prominent figures.
For instance, JFK:
Travel has become one of the great forces for peace and understanding in our time. As people move throughout the world and learn to know each other’s customs and to appreciate the qualities of individuals of each nation, we are building a level of international understanding which can sharply improve the atmosphere for world peace.
Pope John Paul II, who enjoyed papal appointment from 1978 through 2005, made this claim specifically in the case of tourism:
In facilitating more authentic social relationship between individuals, tourism can help overcome many real prejudices and foster new bonds of fraternity. In this sense tourism has become a real force for world peace.
And while Gandhi called travel “the language of peace,” this idea isn’t limited to twentieth century thinkers. Rene Descartes, writing in the 1600s, argued that travel forces us to realize “that all those who have attitudes very different from our own are not for that reason barbarians or savages but are as rational or more so than ourselves”. But despite the best efforts of these venerable intellects, the claim has perhaps been most succinctly captured by another figure of world-political eminence.
I think many of our problems as a country would be solved if people had thick passports.
And yet it remains an assumption, a hypothesis derived from argument rather than empirical evidence. It seems like travel could be a vehicle for reducing prejudice. But just because Matt Damon says so doesn’t make it true. Until we look more closely at the evidence, we don’t know for sure. Does travel actually reduce prejudice?
The program of psychological research that brings most directly to bear on this question is called “intergroup contact theory.” Contact theory is often cited as social psychology’s greatest antidote to prejudice. The core hypothesis of contact theory is that social interaction between members of different groups tends to improve relations and lessen prejudice. At least, under certain conditions.
The person who proposed the most influential account of what those specific conditions might be, and the man to whom the original theory is generally attributed, was Gordon Allport. The founder of both personality and social psychology, Allport was one of America’s most influential psychologists from 1937, when he published his first monograph on personality, until his death in 1967. His most influential book, and the one in which he first describes his optimal conditions of intergroup contact, was The Nature of Prejudice.
Allport devotes the sixteenth chapter of the book (out of 31 in total) to ‘The Effect of Contact.’ Evidently, Allport did not anticipate the extent to which his particular phrasing of things would remain an important one; he doesn’t get around to listing out the conditions explicitly until the chapter’s very final paragraph. He claimed that contact reduces prejudice when four conditions are met:
Equal status between groups
Common goals (opportunity short-term cooperation)
Support from institutional authority
Common humanity (opportunity for long-term cooperation)
Both The Nature of Prejudice and the theory it is most famous for are a product of a specific cultural moment. The book was first published in 1954, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Part of the significance of their decision was to overturn the doctrine of “separate but equal.” The Court, as disclosed in their footnote 11, came to this ruling in part because they felt it was supported by modern psychological science. How integration should be done, how optimally to bring people from separate racial and social backgrounds together, was a question everyone was asking.
Over the next half-century, hundreds, if not thousands, of studies looked at the effects of contact, the conditions under which it worked best, and the psychological mechanism by which it reduces prejudice. Overall, researchers were bullish on the idea. Papers often prefaced their discussion of the theory by calling it one of social psychology’s most influential and well-supported ideas. And for the most part, people found that Allport’s four conditions held up. Soon enough a fifth one gained currency. It was added by Thomas Pettigrew, a student of Allport’s and contact theory’s most ardent proponent: contact is more likely to reduce prejudice when it results in a cross-group friendship.
A major innovation in theorizing about why contact seemed to work came from a psychologist named Henri Tajfel. Writing in the late 1970s, Tajfel made a crucial point. Social groupings are not fixed. The categories of “us” and “them” are what linguists call deictic. They refer to different things in different contexts. When Allport was writing in the 1950s, the focus was on race, which felt at the time like an immutable quality (it’s now easier to appreciate that racial boundaries are drawn differently in different places and at different times). Tajfel’s idea—referred to in the psychological literature as “social identity theory”—was that what a person perceives as their in-group or out-group is not immutable. It can change, and it can do so according to predictable rules.
To contact theorists, this implied that what happened during intergroup contact was essentially a reëvaluation of group boundaries. The reason the condition of “common goals” would be important, for example, is that it puts members from different groups, however temporarily, onto the same team. In other words, intergroup contact reduced prejudice by encouraging people to use different strategies for generalizing about members of their out-group. Psychologists came up with three different models of how this might work.
The first model was de-categorization. In this case, the strictures of group membership simply fall away. We begin to see people not as members of a group, but as individuals. Then we can take them on the terms of who they are and not who we assume them to be. This was a key part of Tajfel’s social identity theory: that viewing the world through the lens of “us” and “them” is a kind of mode we can operate in, but not one that is compulsory. We don’t have to see the different teams; we can just see the players.
Another model was re-categorization. This idea was that contact redraws the boundaries of in-group and out-group. The in-group circle gets larger and begins to include the individuals—ideally their entire group—with whom one has come into contact. Under this account, we still see the world through a group-based lens. But we are inclined to embiggen the set of people we consider “us.”
The final model was what you might think of as pro-categorization. In this model, the category boundaries stay the same. But an individual’s evaluation of the out-group changes. Their generalizations become more favorable. Under this account, contact works by convincing people their out-group members simply aren’t that bad.
The upshot of research on these three competing models is that they all get some portion of the picture correct. These are three ways of how people come to holds more favorable views about people from other social groups. Which one gets activated over the others depends on the specifics of the situation. But overall, researchers agreed that both quality and quantity of contact matters. And that the effect of contact was greatest when people viewed the person they interacted with as “representative” of their group. Contact doesn’t help if people get the sense that they’re engaging with a one-off. They have to form a general idea, to reconsider their assumptions about a group of people as a whole.
The climax of this wave of almost exclusively favorable research on contact theory was a 2006 meta-analysis (a statistical analysis of many separate studies looking at the same phenomenon) by Tom Pettigrew and Linda Tropp. It is a finding that gets cited in pretty much every contact theory paper that came after: greater intergroup contact resulted in greater reduction in prejudice “(r = -.215)”. (One paper compared this strength of correlation to the relationship between second-hand smoke and lung cancer: not overwhelmingly strong, but definitely real.) Pettigrew and Tropp claimed that across the 600+ studies they looked at, contact reduced prejudice regardless of the conditions under which it took place. If Allport’s conditions were met, the effect was even stronger.
It was also around this time that contact theory began to receive more thorough scrutiny. One of the first papers to really take a swipe at contact theory, also in 2006, was by John Dixon and his co-authors. Among other criticisms, they pointed out that while contact researchers had been so obsessed with the goal of prejudice reduction, no one had bothered to ask whether this reduction led to an impact on inequality in society more generally. Psychologists had become so intent on identifying “optimal” conditions and comparing separate models that they had begun to lose touch with the real world situations in which contact is actually likely to take place. In Allport’s time, inequality seemed like a psychological problem. Some people don’t like other people on the basis of race and therefore don’t think they should be afforded the same opportunities in society. The problem at hand was how to change these attitudes. At the onset of the twenty-first century, it was becoming more widely recognized that inequality, as we are accustomed to hearing in 2021, is not just the product of individual actors. It is systemic. Contact theorists had yet to reckon with this possibility.
Which led to a generation of researchers who wondered what else had been overlooked by contact theorists in the twentieth century. For example, a recent paper looking at “ironic” effects of contact found that optimal contact can lead to complacency. After an experience of positive contact, both parties are more likely to think that all is well in the world. They are then less likely to feel it necessary to engage in efforts for social change. The authors of this study found that contact decreases perceived injustice, as well as support for both collective action and reparative policies. Even Pettigrew and Miles Hewstone (another prominent expositor of contact theory) published a paper on the “single factory fallacy”—essentially, an admission that the single factor of “contact” does not, alas, explain everything.
And so, research on intergroup contact is, at the moment, doing a bit of soul searching. There is research on the factors that precede contact: who chooses to engage in contact and why? There is research on the consequences of contact (to quote John Dixon): “are negative evaluations the problem and is getting to like one another more the solution?” Yet the sense that it is, under the right conditions, a vehicle for prejudice reduction is still there.
But in order to get a better understand of how exactly something resembling “optimal contact” applies to travel, we need to look at a couple on-the-ground examples.
In April 2017, the global beverage corporation Heineken released a commercial as part of their “Worlds Apart” advertising campaign. The commercial opens with a bald, white British man who says, “I would describe my political views as the new right.” He’s wearing a suit with a purple tie and a white shirt. You can see his watch underneath the cuff of his shirt. He gestures when he says “new right,” moving his hands from center to right. Then it shows a woman with dark skin. She has curly hair, cropped up. She’s wearing large hoop earrings, a choker, and about eight- or nine-dozen colorful bracelets on her left wrist. She says, “I would say that I am left.” She gestures to the left when she says it.
We see the text: “Two strangers. Divided by their beliefs.”
The scene cuts to those two people, the bald “new-right” man and the bracelet-clad “left” woman walking into a large warehouse. They enter from opposing doors. They stand there briefly and look at each other from across the room. Then it cuts back to a video clip of the man. He says, “Feminism today is man hating.” The camera cuts back to them making eye contact. We hear her say, “I would describe myself as a feminist 100%.”
They’re guided along a lane painted on the floor, where they meet in the middle of the room and follow another marked path together. We see the words: “Each knows nothing about the other. Or what this experiment involves.”
Now another pair is introduced. They’re in the same warehouse, but a separate scene. We see two more people—two white men—enter the warehouse together. It’s the same set up as the feminist and the anti-feminist. The first man looks at the camera earnestly and says, “I don't believe that climate change exists.” The second man says, “We are not taking enough action on climate change.” He emphasizes enough. We see them size each other up in the warehouse. It cuts back to the interview of the anti-environmentalist, and he says, “I think it’s about time that these people got off their high horses and start looking for credible problems that actually exist.”
A third couple enters. Another scene. The woman says, “It’s absolutely critical that trans people have a voice.” She is attractive and white. She faces off with another white, bald man. We hear an audio clip of him saying, “That’s not right. You can’t—you know, you’re a man be a man or you’re a female be a female.”
It goes back to a clip of the anti-feminist again: “Women need to remember that we need you to have our children.” Then the feminist, “Could I be friends with someone that says that a woman’s place is in the home?” She makes a sour face. “Ehm...”
Heineken presents us with a question: "Is there more that unites than divides us?”
Now the fun begins. Each couple is tasked with building two bar stools, one is yellow and square, the other is blue and round. They begin building. At first they aren’t interacting much except what is necessary to construct their stools. When the stools are finished they set them at the marked area next to a dilapidated table.
They read a prompt off a piece of paper: “Describe what it is like to be you in five adjectives.” There’s an onslaught.
The transphobic man starts, “Okay… Frustrating.” He says it in a British way, collapsing ‘strate’ into a single, emphasized syllable.
The feminist: “Dedicated.”
The anti-environmentalist: “Opinionated.”
The transgender woman: “Lucky.”
The anti-feminist: “Ambitious.”
The anti-environmentalist again: “Offensive.”
The transphobic man ponders for a moment, lowers his eyes, then brings them up and states, “Solemn.” He says, “I have ups and downs."
The feminist: “Strong.”
The transgender woman: “I want to say attacked, misunderstood.”
The transphobic man looks at her and nods.
The next question prompts, “Name three things you and I have in common.”
“We’re both male, we’re both confident, and we’re both loudly spoken,” says the anti-environmentalist.
The transgender woman says, “We know each other better than people who’ve known each other for 10 minutes should.”
The anti-feminist says to the feminist, “You seem quite ambitious and positive and you’ve got this really, um, you’ve got a glow. Do you know what I’m saying? Your aura is pretty cool.”
The transgender woman says, “I’m sensing, are you former military or something?”
The transphobic man responds, “People have said that but there is no history. Are you, then?”
“Ex,” she says.
“Ex military?” he asks. “If you’re ex-military, I’m very proud of you already.”
The anti-feminist says, “I grew up in a bit of a rough state. I’ve experienced homelessness, I know what it is like to have absolutely nothing.” He continues, “So yeah, I’m definitely most grateful just, just for life.”
The anti-environmentalist says, “We’ve only just met, but I think you’re the sort of person that would listen to me and we’d have a discussion rather than argue.” The other guy says, “Yeah, you’re good to hang out with, man.”
Now there’s more furniture to be erected. Each couple goes around the room to collect pieces to fix up the table. They set the pieces in place and the dilapidated table becomes a bar counter. They’re more interactive and communicative this time around. Then they go over to a globe on the other side of the room. They open it and there are two cold, green bottles of Heineken beer inside. It’s an allusion to their campaign slogan: “Open your world.” They receive instructions: “Take a bottle and place it on its corresponding markings on the bar.” Each couple sits at the bar together.
“Attention,” a voice says over the loudspeaker. “Please stand to watch a short film.”
Each couple then sees clips selected from their interview video. First the feminist duo. The bald man in a suit says, “Feminism today is definitely an excuse for misandry, man-hating.” The two of them watching the video, both with an uncomfortable half-smile on their face. Then the climate change guys. “If somebody said to me that climate change is destroying the world then I’d say that is total piffle.” The activist turns and gives a look to the other man. Then the transgender couple. The man says, “So transgender, it is very odd. We’re not set up to understand or see things like that.” He’s standing uncomfortably. Arms crossed, shifting from side to side. An embarrassed scowl on his face. She is standing tall, but tentatively, touching her hands in front of her body.
Then we see the other sides’ videos.
“I am a daughter, a wife. I am transgender.” The transphobic man crosses his arms and frowns, watching the video, not her.
“I feel like the battle for feminism definitely isn’t done. The fight is never going to be over if I am honest with you.” Both the feminist and the anti-feminist look tense now. The man looks over at the woman then averts his eyes.
The voice comes back on the loudspeaker: “You now have a choice. You may go or you can stay and discuss your differences over a beer.”
We see the transgender woman and the transphobic man standing there. The transgender woman walks over to the bar stool, accepting the opportunity for discussion over a beer. But then there’s a pause. The transphobic man walks off. Her mouth gapes and her eyebrows go up.
A moment elapses, then the man comes back on screen and says, “I’m only joking.” They both chuckle, and she says, “You had me for a second there.” The environmentalist counterparts each state their intention to have a beer. The feminist and the antifeminist agree to the same thing. Each couple raises their beers and says, “Cheers.”
The environmentalist says to his counterpart, “At the end of the day mate, I’ve enjoyed working with you.” We see a line from later in their discussion, “And you know even if you wanted to convince people about your point the productive thing to do would be to sit down and have a beer.” The other man agrees emphatically, “Engage! Just engage!” We see the transphobic man explain, “I’ve been brought up in a way where everything is black and white, but life isn’t black and white.” The transgender woman says, “Yeah, I’m just me.” The man nods understandingly and affirms her statement. The antifeminist raises his glass, “Smash the patriarchy.” They toast. The transphobic man and the transgender woman exchange numbers, promise to keep in touch, and then fire off a couple more quips.
The Heineken logo appears. Open your mind becomes Open your world.6
This is a textbook case of intergroup contact under optimal conditions, one that I think accords with our intuitions about how such an interaction would go in the best case scenario. All four of Allport’s conditions are met. There is equal status between groups (they’re just two people in a room), a common goal (constructing the table), institutional support (Heineken obviously wants the interaction to go well), and a basis for shared humanity (the descriptions of personal tribulation). The interaction results in a cross-group friendship. The other individual’s group membership is emphasized, so they come across as representative of that group more generally. The (formerly?) transphobic man re-categorizes (“life isn’t black and white”); his interlocutor encourages him to de-categorize (“I’m just me”). The delineation between “us” and “them” is renegotiated, and allowances are made that the other group may not be so bad after all. By the end, people appear to have forfeited some of the prejudices they held coming into the encounter.
But one of the criticisms leveled against classical contact theory by researchers like John Dixon is that the “optimal” conditions for contact specified by psychologists have become divorced from anything we might see in a real world situation. I think that’s what is happening here. The only place one is likely encounter these optimal conditions for intergroup contact is in a set-piece for a Heineken commercial.
What contact actually looks like in the real world, especially while attempting to make one’s way in a foreign country, looks much different. I came across a story which I think illustrates a much more realistic contact scenario. It’s from a book I found a few weeks back in a used book store in Oxford. I liked the title.
It’s called The Yogurt Man Cometh.
The titular story of the volume is inspired by the events of one memorable but not particularly special morning while an American named Kevin Revolinski worked as an English teacher in Ankara, Turkey. It was a Saturday. Revolinski heard the door buzzer. He went to investigate.
At the door was a Turkish man. Revolinski had been in country long enough to expect generally positive experiences with its denizens, but not long enough to gain fluency in their native tongue. The man began speaking in Turkish. Revolinski attempted to convey that his command of the language was minimal. The Turkish man paused, considering this intelligence, then began again in Tarzanca—“Tarzan-ese,” a paired down version of Turkish in which the speaker is unencumbered by commitment to verb conjugations, proper articles, and other complicated linguistic edifices. The man assumed Revolinski was a German tourist. “Almanca?” he asked, moving on without awaiting an answer.
The Turkish man gestured toward his wares, presenting Revolinski with a list of terms only a few of which he could understand: “milk,” “cheese,” “yogurt,” etc. The eponymous yogurt man. Revolinski was for the most part accustomed to this service. The building manager—the kapıcı—frequently delivered groceries from the main market to her tenants. Revolinski and his roommates left money in a basket for her everyday to pick up a fresh loaf of bread. Some of their neighbors received entire packages of goods. Revolinski assumed the man was soliciting their participation some kind of yogurt route.
The man pointed inside. Revolinski offered for him to enter. He declined the invitation, but indicated toward something on the inside, referring to the object of interest with a term unknown to Revolinski. Ignorant of the man’s intentions, Revolinski brought him a glass of water. The man gulped it down. Then he resumed pointing. Revolinski opened the cupboard. Warmer, evidently. Experimentally, Revolinski reached for a pot. “Bigger,” he understood the man to have said. Revolinski rummaged under the sink and presented his discovery to the yogurt man, who affirmed his selection. Pleased by his ability to communicate across linguistic barriers, Revolinski handed the man the pot.
But before Revolinski could put a hand forward to dissuade him, the man produced a large bottle of white, goopy yogurt from his bag and emptied its contents into the pot. Unmoved by Revolinski’s protests, he introduced the contents of a second bottle into the pot until it was full. Revolinski was now in possession of yogurt. Several gallons of it.
Having employed the oldest trick in the salesman’s book, the yogurt man moved on to the matter of money. He wanted it. Revolinski demurred. He attempted to convey that the amount of yogurt provided far exceeded his appetite for it. The yogurt man smiled benignly. Then he pointed, reminding Revolinski of what they both knew. The yogurt was already in the pot.
Revolinski called inside to another housemate, who emerged wielding a dictionary. Syllable by syllable, Revolinski and his colleague explained to the yogurt man that it had not been their intention to obtain an entire pot of yogurt. In fact they had not been desirous of any yogurt at all. As if the desires of these two tourists were the primary concern of the yogurt man, he informed them that yogurt, once poured, could not go back into the bottle. Revolinski, acquiescing to the directional nature of yogurt, sought to negotiate a settlement. How much? “500,000 lira.” Revolinski was eager to move from this interaction. He agreed.
Revolinski presented the yogurt man with a 500,000 lira note. The yogurt man waved his hands in consternation. He wouldn’t accept it. “500,000 per kilo.” This was six kilos of yogurt. “Three million.” Revolinski was taken aback. He refused to give the yogurt man any greater sum.
Relenting slightly, the yogurt man suggested a new figure: two and a half million. Revolinski rejected the sum again, insisting that he didn’t actually want yogurt—for any amount.
“We don’t want the yogurt,” said Revolinski.
“You must take it,” spake the yogurt man.
Exasperated, Revolinski started in at the man in lumbering Turkish. “Look,” he said in a flourish of articulateness, “I do not like the yogurt. I do not want the yogurt. I do not eat the yogurt.” Feigning miscomprehension—or rather, comprehending all too well—the yogurt man refused to accept the pot, thrusting it back in the direct of Revolinski and his housemate. The housemate stormed off, flinging oaths in several directions, while Revolinski stood his ground.
Then the kapıcı appeared. She took up in her tenants’ defense. “One and a half million?!” she said. “And that is not six kilos.” The premises of the yogurt man’s rouse had begun to collapse. He searched the ground with his eyes. Dejected, he decamped with the pot. They could see him outside, ladling yogurt from the pot to a jar. Revolinski turned to the kapıcı to express his gratitude. In gesture-laden Tarzanca she told him next time just to close the door. The yogurt man slunk back to the doorway, deposited the empty pot on the step, and turned without a word to exit.
Revolinski and his housemate shared a triumphant look. “Boy, they sure were ticked off,” said the housemate. Revolinski contemplated this for a moment. “Know what the funny thing is?” he asked. “Somewhere a couple of yogurt guys are driving around really ticked off at the Germans.”
This is closer to what contact looks like in actuality. Anyone who has spent time abroad will recognize the experience of a transaction conducted along these basic plot lines. I wouldn’t describe it as optimal.
It doesn’t meet any of Allport’s conditions. There are defined roles of seller and buyer, so the playing field of the interaction isn’t exactly equal. The goals of the yogurt man and Revolinski are antithetical: the yogurt man’s goal is to sell yogurt; Revolinski’s goal is not to buy any. If we consider the kapıcı an institutional authority of sorts, she could hardly be relied upon for even-handed support. And maybe by the end there’s a sense of common humanity, though I’d bet Revolinski’s appreciation of the situation’s absurdity runs deeper than the yogurt man’s.
Revolinski came in with his prejudice (that Turkish people are generally friendly and helpful). But that stereotype doesn’t seem to have been much diminished by the interaction, nor is that necessarily the kind of prejudice we want to squash. The yogurt man, presumably, did perceive his interlocutor as “representative” of a particular group. But he got the group wrong. It’s hard to see how this kind of interaction—not unrepresentative of what people experience broad—is going to rid the world of prejudicial thinking.
And while most research from the intergroup contact literature has investigated contact in residential, office, educational, or recreational settings, the few studies that have looked directly at travel and tourism show that it’s a mixed back for contact. Of all the settings that Pettigrew and Tropp looked at in their meta-analysis, travel had the smallest effect of any setting. (Though at r = -.113, increased contact did still resulted in a statistically significant reduction in prejudice.)
For example, a study from the 1980s of Israeli tourist visiting Egypt showed that the trip changed the Israeli’s attitudes toward Egyptians in some dimensions but not others. On average, the Israelis felt that Egyptians were more friendly and polite after having visited their country than before. But the trip also reinforced negative stereotypes. They were more inclined to believe that Egyptians were less intelligent and less competent than they previously had. There was no change in terms of political attitudes. Half of the Israeli tourists in the study also received a pamphlet, giving them further insight into Egyptian-Israeli history and the local culture. This material made the Israel’s less likely to adopt a negative view of Egyptians’ intellectual capacities. But it failed to make a difference in either the social or political dimensions.
This pattern of results was also found, for example, in a study from the early 1990s of American tourists visiting the Soviet Union and one from 2020 of Chinese tourists visiting North Koreans. The population of the country is general perceived as nice, but not especially competent.
And so when it comes to travel, the question is whether contact is more likely to break stereotypes or reinforce them. One of the keys to successful contact was that the other person is perceived as representative of their group. This is certainly true during travel. Any observed behavior—a waiter spilling a drink on your lap, the consistency of the train schedule, the helpfulness of people on the street—can readily be attributed to nationality. It’s the most immediate hook on which to hang an explanation.
If the contact interaction is a positive one, a positive generalization is the result. If the interaction goes poorly, the generalization is negative.
So what does this mean for travel and prejudice?
Contact certainly can reduce prejudice. But as with the Heineken commercial the conditions under which it does so can be a bit contrived. It seems unlikely that’s what any of us encounter when we go abroad. As with the yogurt man, what contact actually looks like in the wild is decidedly less optimal. The evidence from psychological research definitely supports the effects of contact generally. But it’s a lot flimsier in the case of travel specifically. Then there’s that further question—how far does prejudice reduction even get us?
When I ask myself whether I feel that travel has made me less prejudiced, the answer is genuinely unclear.7 I’m not at all convinced it has. One possibility is simply that I’ve constructed more elaborate stereotypes. Having encountered people from many different backgrounds, I now have a larger arsenal of generalizations on which to draw. Perhaps travel in some important way encourages prejudice, presenting one with the opportunity to be a kind of connoisseur of general ideas about others. Even Alexis de Tocqueville felt that an extended jaunt around the United States gave him the authority to explain to Americans how their own country works.8
The answer I find most convincing is that what travel does for us is not cognitive, but affective. It is not about changing what we think or the way we generalize; it is about changing our emotional disposition toward others. Travel makes the existence of other people concrete. Rather than being a group of people “over there,” we actually have a basis for relating to them. For better or worse, humans are way more likely to care about people that they have a personal connection with. Travel creates that personal connection.
This is essentially the pro-categorization model of how contact works: simultaneously seeing someone as both out-group and as a possible alliance. The point is rather that now one develops a connection with a place and its people who formerly were just a label on the map. In this case, it doesn’t matter whether you still harbor assumptions about how those other people are likely to behave. The point of travel then would not be to have, like God, perfect information about the other individuals at large in the world. Rather the point is simply that it gives us a minor personal investment in a life—and group—other than our own.
In other words, the trick is not let our prejudices (which will, in some form or another, always be with us) get in the way of our wider appreciation for the humanity of others. At first, this may seem difficult to imagine in the context of thinking about people from other nations, other religions, other tongues, other cultural milieux. I think it’s easier to see its merits in the context of family. We are the foremost authority on the shortcomings of our own family members. Yet we still love them. We appreciate the good and the bad. They both exist, and they are both inescapable. We humans are experts at maintaining our commitment to inconsistent positions. Let’s use that to our advantage.
And yet I can’t shake the criticisms leveled by people like John Dixon and the new wave of contact researchers. Let’s say that travel really does lead to a modest reduction in prejudicial attitudes, and even beyond that makes us more favorably disposed toward one another. What does that get us as a society? I think it’s telling that many of the proponents of both travel-as-social-good and contact theory are from socially dominant groups. Is cosmopolitanism making the world a better place? Or is it a vanity project of the elite and the affluent? Who really benefits because Matt fucking Damon ordered a passport with extra pages? “The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes… it’s a plus for everybody.” Is it really?
It’s easy to feel that the answer on some level has to be yes, that there is a point to experiencing ways of doing things other than the ones you’re used to. That even if on an individual level the experience of going abroad doesn’t do much to move the needle, the collective result is a world that is slightly more sympathetic, slightly more eager to construct a society that works for everyone. I still believe this to some extent—even if for no other reason than individual experience matters. And travel, done right, can be such a powerful experience.
But I think the evidence makes the picture fuzzier. Does travel actually reduce prejudice? Maybe. Probably. But it’s legitimately hard to say precisely how or how much. It depends on the situation. And the conditions under which something like “optimal contact” actually does take place—they’re tough to come by. Rarely do we find ourselves building stools with people whose views are exactly opposed to our own. We’re more likely to be out back, slightly pissed off and trying to coerce the yogurt back in the jar. But that’s okay. Life goes on. The yogurt man giveth and the yogurt man taketh away. German tourist or not. He’ll still sell you the yogurt.9
If you have another conclusion based on this—or other—evidence, I’d love to hear it:
Why did I publish this piece on Substack? I’ve published a few pieces in literary magazines (which accept more extravagant, wandering pieces like this one, but pay less) and in wider-distribution sci-comm magazines. And the problem I’ve found is that you publish a piece in one of these outlets and it’s exciting at first. But then that’s it. Anyone who enjoys your piece and finds it interesting doesn't become a fan of you the writer, but instead of the magazine more generally. This leads to the central financial issue with writing. As an author, you don;’t own the distribution. But it’s the distributor that makes the money and has longer-term stability. So in an effort to position myself more effectively over the long run, I’m trying to grow an audience on Substack, where I want to write high-quality (hopefully!!) pieces at the intersection of psychology and travel. Also those audience numbers help convince a book publisher that people will actually pay money for your shit. This, at least, is the idea. We’ll see how it goes.
It would be a huge help in this effort if you could share or subscribe! Thanks!
Normally, I’d think it a bit kitsch to start off with a quasi-sappy quote like this. But because the initial prose is a little dense, I wanted something relatable, something to reassure you that we’re going to get into a discussion that matters to you later on.
One piece of common writing advice is to write one’s lede (the introductory passage) and then delete the first paragraph. It’s almost always unnecessary preamble. One way people get around this—one that’s so common as to have almost become a trope—is to begin an essay with a story. “In 1954, the surgeon general of the United States…” Part of the assumption with this work around is that unless you spoon feed the beginning of an essay to someone, they’re going to change the channel to some other more immediately rewarding piece of a content. Diving straight into concepts takes some cojones, and I’m always impressed when essayists can pull it off. I can’t say that includes me—since I still hedged my bets on that front (see footnote 1). But the story I wanted to tell in this piece is not narratively-driven, it is conceptually-driven. So that’s what I put up front.
This year, the chapter I read was called “Why the Americans show more aptitude and taste for general ideas than their forefathers, the English.” Incidentally—then again, perhaps not—when I say that I leaf through this book “every year,” what I mean is that I did it last year and then again this year. Guess Tocqueville wasn’t wrong when he accused Americans of a propensity to over-generalize.
This section features big, chunky academic paragraphs. I kind of like them. Normally, I wouldn’t. But I think the reason I did in this case is that the word prejudice conjure an image of an individual with their hairy belly overflowing underneath a white tank-top bellowing out some bigoted expression rather than something germane to the context of rigorous academic discourse. I dunno. Maybe that’s just me. Anyway, what I was trying to do here was show that prejudice is a logical problem, that it follows from the normal functioning of the human cognitive apparatus. Plus the whole quoting Tocqueville thing. So pretentious. Way more pretentious than quoting Locke, which is traditionally how cognitive science based discussions of generalization begin.
But then after three paragraphs of chunky academic prose, I felt it was time to throw in some blogger paragraphs. Also, it’s non-standard to jump so quickly to a new section at the beginning of a piece. But I was done making my initial point and ready to move onto a new style of exposition. Honestly, I’m not convinced it works. Oh well.
Conventional wisdom would be to put the concrete example before the abstract theory. But I opted for the other way again here, as in the opening passage. Because the story is a fucking Heineken commercial, I think if it came first the reader would be like, “am I really supposed to take this seriously?” Whereas coming after the scientific research, you’re a bit more willing to go with it. Instead of being the motivating example, it becomes a handy set of hooks on which to hang the more technical ideas we’ve just covered.
I know you probably don’t care about whether I personally am less prejudiced because of travel. But I think it’s unfair to ask the question generally—“does travel make others less prejudiced?”—without turning the camera on yourself. I also suspect that I might in fact be more prejudiced than the average person. I don’t actually know. But I definitely am not committed, or even especially disposed, to the idea that travel has attenuated my inclination to make judgments or generalization about entire groups of people. It seemed like that was an appropriate frame of reference for concluding this decidedly ambivalent essay on travel and prejudice.
Tocqueville claimed that the only people with a greater penchant for generalization than Americans were the French. Cheeky fucker.
I started researching this essay hoping to find a clearer answer. But I didn’t. Does travel reduce prejudice? From the perspective of contact theory, the answer seems to be yes, a little—but probably not a lot, and certainly not in every instance. I also don’t feel like the anecdotal evidence is clear cut, either. This made the essay difficult to end. The overall feeling I wanted to elicit in this piece is to take a question that the reader comes in with a strong intuitive feeling that the answer is yes and to play with the for-and-against of that position, ultimately leaving the scene much more complicated than when I entered. That seemed like the only legitimate treatment of the material as I currently understand it. Maybe I’ll find a way of thinking about it in the future that leads to a more straightforward resolution. But for now mostly what I’m left with are questions. And yogurt jokes.