MMM Workshop September 2023

When contact backfires, and when it does not. A social influence model of the dynamics of affective polarization

Andreas Flache
Department of Sociology, University of Groningen

15 Sep 2023, 09:00–09:25

Presentation Slides (PDF)


Concerns about increasing affective polarization have renewed interest in interpersonal intergroup contact as a possible remedy against mutually negative outgroup attitudes in society. Recent research increasingly recognizes that individual intergroup contact is but one element in a larger set of interacting processes that occur in interpersonal social interactions both within and between groups.

Advancing earlier work (Flache, 2018), we present a computational agent-based model of the dynamics of intergroup attitudes that encompasses interpersonal intergroup contact as one element, but adds that attitudes towards groups are also socially influenced by ingroup-peers, that the interpersonal relations through which contact and social influence occur are themselves subject to network changes, and that attitudes towards the own and other groups are interconnected.

We explore theoretically a set of possible threats to the positive effects of intergroup contact. On the bright side, we find that intergroup interactions improve attitudes towards outgroups even if there is relatively strong structural xenophobia, an initial bias against the outgroup, and homophily in network relations. But our model also suggests that interaction between groups can induce affective polarization in terms of increasingly negative outgroup attitudes and increasingly positive ingroup-attitudes.

Yet, affective polarization is mitigated when improved intergroup attitudes have a more immediate social impact, increasing chances for between-group encounters and reducing chances that these encounters are negative. Model analyses finally imply that initial ingroup-critics from different groups may unite and become critical of all groups in a society, potentially undermining positive effects of contact on outgroup attitudes.

Relevant publications

Flache, Andreas. 2018. About Renegades and Outgroup Haters: modelling the link between social influence and intergroup attitudes. Advances in Complex Systems 21 (06n07).