04/03/2014 05:57 GMT | Updated 04/05/2014 06:59 BST

Prejudice: Not Just Whom You Know, But Also Where You Live

It has long been known that positive interaction with members of other groups (ethnic, religious and so on) promotes more positive attitudes to others. Why, then, is it sometimes claimed that diversity poses a challenge to modern society, makes people withdraw from interaction, makes us less trusting of one another?

Part of the problem is that many studies of diversity simply look at proportions of people from different groups who live in the same area (e.g., a 'mixed neighborhood' might be 30% Black/African-American, 60% white, and 10% 'other'). But those bare proportions don't actually tell us very much. Do people in those different groups actually ever talk to each other? How do they get on? Surely that is much more important. And if different areas (e.g., regions, districts, or neighborhoods) vary in terms of how well different groups get on, could we show that average levels of contact across the neighborhood make a difference over and above specific, individual levels of contact?

We can put this question another way. Imagine two people with the same level of contact (e.g., how often they mix positively with people who belong to a different ethnic group than their own). But imagine also that these two people live in different neighborhoods. Finally, imagine that these two neighborhoods themselves have different average levels of positive intergroup contact (say, one of them is known for its tolerant, multicultural atmosphere; the other is known as a tense place, where different groups rarely mix). Would these two individuals have different levels of prejudice?

SEE ALSO: Racial Tolerance Improved By Living In Ethnically Mixed Areas Says Oxford Study

Our new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences asked whether prejudice is a function of not only whom you know, but also where you live. We answer this question with a resounding 'yes'.

In a series of studies across numerous countries, we asked respondents a set of simple questions, to which they provided answers on graded response scales. The first questions concerned contact between groups, measured by asking a question such as 'How many of your friends are foreigners?'. Each study also measured prejudice, with items such as 'How warm or cold do you feel about ethnic minorities?'. Finally, four of the seven studies also measured social norms in the community by asking people to grade their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as 'The mix of different ethnic groups in my neighborhood enriches local life'. Six of the studies took place in individual countries, in each case with large representative samples: Germany (2,722, 1,024, 1,056), the UK (868), the USA (1,001), and South Africa (897); one of the studies was based on the European Social Survey, which sampled over 42,000 respondents across 21 European countries and Israel.

We analysed the data using a technique that takes account of population diversity and other criteria at regional, district, or neighborhood levels, and groups of respondents who come from the same geographical unit. And the studies took account of key characteristics at the individual level (e.g., age, gender, and education) and the neighborhood level (e.g., deprivation, unemployment).

Of greatest interest, we showed that attitudes toward members of other groups were more positive when people lived in areas where people, on average, have more positive intergroup contact - irrespective of how much contact they as an individual have. Even individuals who themselves have no direct intergroup contact experience can benefit from living in mixed settings, provided that fellow members of their own group do engage in positive intergroup contact. In the four studies that measured social norms, we showed that neighborhood levels of contact exert their benign impact on prejudice especially via higher overall value placed on diversity.

Two of these studies provided the strictest tests, because they followed up the same people over one or four years. We could show, over time, that even if prejudiced people might avoid individual contact, they still profit from living in an area where people in general have more intergroup contact.

In sum, prejudice is a matter not just of whom you personally know, but also where you live. What are the implications of these findings? Governments could encourage more mixing via planned integrated housing, attracting those committed to live in mixed communities. They could promote public spaces, activities and markets where people are likely to interact more. They could also encourage more mixing in schools, by providing special funds for new schools aiming to bridge estranged communities. But while we are waiting for such initiatives to develop (and it might be a long wait), the research results remind each of us that our own behavior provides part of the social environment for others. If we mix freely and display tolerance, that will encourage tolerance in others. If we avoid contact, keep to our own, and self-segregate, that will shape separation and support prejudicial attitudes among others.

Miles Hewstone is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Oxford, Director of the Oxford Centre for Intergroup Conflict, and Fellow of New College, Oxford -

Steven Vertovec is the Director, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany and Supernumerary Fellow of Linacre College, Oxford -