The Simple Theory Providing a Path Out of This Mess

It’s also part of the secret sauce to engaging communities in an age of tribalism. (Reading Time: Just under 5 minutes)


How do we reverse our troubling slide into tribalism and polarization? How do we create a society where people of different backgrounds and beliefs are tolerant and accepting of one another? How can we convene communities to work together to tackle their shared challenges without devolving into Us vs Them conflict? 

To find the answers we must dive deep into our social psychology where there resides a simple but profound mechanism driving our group relationships. 

This mechanism is the building block for creating a more inclusive and cooperative world.  It is the engine that will drive our path towards a better future.

It’s also the secret ingredient for conducting community engagement processes in a time of tribalism.

To unearth this gem, we need to take a plunge. Follow me.


Our journey starts way back in the 1950s amid racial segregation and Jim Crow. This is when the field of social psychology began to explore the nature of prejudice between racial/ethnic groups and the conditions that create greater tolerance and social harmony. A concept emerged called “Intergroup Contact Theory.”

First articulated by psychologist Gordon Allport in his book The Nature of Prejudice, Intergroup Contact Theory explains how interpersonal contact between people of different groups can cultivate greater understanding, tolerance, and connection. It just takes the right conditions, a.k.a. “Optimal Contact.”

Allport outlined four conditions that facilitate Optimal Contact:

  1. A shared common goal between the differing groups.
  2. A necessity for cooperation
  3. Support and oversight from a higher authority (like an institution, law, or custom)
  4. Equal status in participation.

Many consider Intergroup Contact Theory the greatest contribution of social psychology to the understanding of humankind. All over the world it is enshrined in policy-making and plays a fundamental role in efforts to improve social relationships.

Those who work with communities to shape the built environment will recognize that these conditions closely mirror the best tools and techniques for building community through community engagement. That work has the benefit of being super-charged by the context of Place, where we are evolutionarily wired to participate and seek belonging.


Over time, Intergroup Contact Theory has been found relevant to any situation where there are interactions between different “in-groups” and “out-groups,” like pickle-ball players vs. tennis players, or Republicans vs. Democrats. 

By the 2000’s, hundreds of studies had accumulated on Intergroup Contact Theory, so a couple of social-psychologists decided it was time to conduct a meta-analysis to get a grasp on what it all means.

The first clear conclusion of their meta-analysis was that Intergroup Contact Theory was not just a theory, it was unequivocally effective. 

The second big conclusion was that while Allport’s conditions helped facilitate positive intergroup contact, they are not required. The one potential exception is Condition #3 (the support of a common authority or custom), which still seemed somehow linked to positive outcomes. 


Wait – wah??? I thought you said those were the necessary conditions for Optimal Contact?

Well, it turns out they help a lot, but there is actually something deeper at play. 

We know this because after that meta-analysis, social psychologists spent a couple more decades studying what’s REALLY going on when people of different groups successfully get together and bridge their differences. What psychological device makes it tick?

What they found is two emotional (rather than cognitive) mechanisms at the heart of Optimal Contact:

  • Optimal Contact reduces anxiety about intergroup interaction.
  • Optimal Contact induces empathy and perspective taking between different groups.

This is all that Allport’s conditions were really doing: reducing anxiety and inducing empathy. 

Once you take care of those emotions, humans are wired so that over time, the more familiar we become with each other, the more we like each other.

Once you take care of those emotions, humans are wired so that over time, the more familiar we become with each other, the more we like each other.

The reason Condition #3 is still important to Optimal Contact is because we need a third party or social structure to provide a framework for reducing anxiety and providing opportunities for taking others’ perspectives.

It’s an important reminder of the important role of facilitators, especially in community engagement. They maintain the social structure of Condition #3.

And during our age of increasing tribalism, reducing anxiety and inducing perspective taking, along with cultivating a bigger “We,” is the way to reduce the perceived or potential threats between different groups in a successful community engagement process.


Studies have also shown startling and reverberating extensions of Intergroup Contact Theory.

For example, you don’t even need to be directly involved.  Just knowing someone in your in-group who has Optimal Contact with an out-group can change your attitudes towards that out-group.

More importantly, the beneficial effects of Optimal Contact (acceptance, tolerance, etc.) can be transferred to perceptions of other groups that you haven’t had contact with. This is called the “Secondary Transfer Effect.”

Social Psychologists have observed that over time Optimal Contact and the Secondary Transfer Effect accumulates within people in a process of “deprovincialization,” or a general acceptance of other people and cultures. This is linked to “Social Identity Complexity,” or how being involved with numerous cross-cutting groups cultivates more tolerance of other out-groups.

Ok. Wait, let’s stop there.

Isn’t this the world we want?

A world where we can become tolerant of each other’s differences? Where many different types of people can live in one place, in a society that is both diverse and cohesive?  

I couldn’t imagine a brighter line directly connecting the work of engaging communities to healing our frayed and polarized social fabric. 

I couldn’t imagine a brighter line directly connecting the work of engaging communities to healing our frayed and polarized social fabric. 

We have the simple recipe that can lead to a more inclusive and tolerant society: put people from different groups into the same place with conditions that reduce anxiety and encourage taking other perspectives.

So let’s find every opportunity we can to graft Optimal Intergroup Contact into what we do. There are thousands of opportunities at any given moment. 

In fact, apart from a civil war, collective spiritual awakening, or outside intervention, the path towards a better future runs ONLY through Optimal Contact.

There are just no other practical, scalable, proven approaches that can reverse our troubling slide into tribalism and polarization.

Time to get to work.

Check out the 4-part series on Optimal Contact and Community Engagement, starting with “How to Craft a Process for Community Engagement.”


Growing up within the cultural orbit of New York City, I cherish the ease at which New Yorkers strike up conversations with strangers. In “Why Strangers are Good for Us” David Sax laments how cell phones inhibit such random engagement and argues that they are “at the core of our social contract.”

In “Capitalism Subverts Community,” Robert Nuewirth makes the case that community is the unacknowledged engine that makes Capitalism work. We ignore the potential of community at our economic peril. Yes please!

Thomas Edsell writes cumbersome and quote-heavy opinion pieces for the New York Times, but if you stick with it, his work is compelling. I found worthy his recent deep dive into the relationship between social media and our growing social polarization in “We’re Staring at Our Phones, Full of Rage for ‘the Other Side’”