The Effects of Imagined Versus Actual Contact With a Person With a Diagnosis of Schizophrenia

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Journal Article

Intergroup contact has been demonstrated to reduce prejudice toward out-groups under the right conditions; however, real contact experiences are often difficult to arrange. Imagined contact may be an alternative. The current study randomly assigned participants to imagine or to have real contact with a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Results demonstrated that both imagined and real contact had positive effects on attitudes toward people with schizophrenia, as compared to the effects of imagined and real interactions with an age-matched control person. We discuss the strengths and limitations of imagined contact interventions with an eye toward future research.

Basic and Applied Social Psychology
Type of Article
Journal Article
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The following is an excerpt of the intervention methodology. For more information, please see the full text of the article on the publisher's website or through your institution's library.

Participants Participants were recruited from a registry into which Australian university students volunteer themselves to be contacted by researchers to participate in psychology studies. [...] The final sample consisted of 97 participants (four male, 93 female) with ages ranging from 18 to 39 years (M = 20.14, SD = 2.89).


Familiarity In the pretest, participants were asked to rate how familiar they were with ‘‘people diagnosed with a severe mental illness’’ using a rating scale from 1 to 10 [...].

Stigma Measures The stigma measures described next were implemented in both pretest and follow-up surveys.

Dangerousness Scale. The Dangerousness Scale consisted of eight statements about whether people with schizophrenia are likely to be a danger to others [...]. Participants rated each item on a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). [...]

Affect Scale. The Affect Scale is a semantic differential scale comprising 10 opposing pairs of adjectives pertaining to emotions [...]. Participants rated each adjective pair on a 7-point scale [...] with the most extreme responses [...] reflecting the strongest emotions pertaining to the adjective at either end of the scale, according to how much they anticipated experiencing each emotion if they were to interact with a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. [...]

Social Distance Scale. The Social Distance Scale originally comprised seven questions that referred to potential interactions with a hypothetical individual with mental illness. Participants rated their willingness to participate in interactions with a person with schizophrenia on a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly unwilling) to 5 (strongly willing) [...]. Two additional university-relevant social distance items were included for this study, targeting willingness to be in a class or club or to be taught by a person with schizophrenia. All items were reversed scored to ensure that higher scores were representative of greater levels of distancing. [...]

Procedure Each participant first completed an online pretest followed by a single experimental session, which occurred 2 to 4 weeks later, the delay being designed to reduce the prominence of the pretest measures by the time the experimental session was held.

Pretest Survey [...] Participants reported their age, sex, university course, and whether they were a member of several social groups (including indigenous Australians, international students, people with physical disabilities, and older students). Participants also reported whether they had been diagnosed with a mental illness and their level of familiarity with people with a severe mental illness and with members of the other social groups. Participants then completed the Dangerousness Scale, Affect Scale, and the Social Distance Scale as well as scales assessing attitudes toward the other social groups previously listed to dilute the focus on mental illness and thereby disguise the true purpose of the research. [...]

Experimental Session [...] Each participant was then randomly assigned to one of four contact interventions groups in a 2 (contact type: actual, imagined) x 2 (contact person: schizophrenia, control) factorial design. Thus, there were two actual contact conditions where participants had a face-to-face meeting with either a confederate who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia (experimental group) or an age-matched confederate without a mental illness (control group) and two imagined contact conditions where they imagined having an interaction with either a person with schizophrenia or a similarly aged person who did not mention mental illness.

Actual contact. Participants assigned to the actual contact conditions were introduced to a confederate [...]. The researcher asked the participant and confederate to spend 15 to 20 min having an ‘‘informal chat’’ and getting to know each other on the university grounds [...]. In the experimental condition, after asking a few questions about the student’s studies and interests, the confederate spoke about his background, including that he had been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. [...] In the control condition, the confederate simply engaged in informal conversation with participants. [...]

Imagined contact. Participants assigned to the imagined contact condition were told that imagining the interaction would take approximately 15 min of their time, that they would be guided through the interaction by the researcher, and that their task would be to imagine the interaction as vividly as they could. [...] Participants assigned to the experimental condition were asked to imagine that the interaction partner mentions that he has ‘‘been recruited by the researchers because he has been diagnosed with a mental illness’’ and that he ‘‘discloses to you that he has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.’’ [...] Participants assigned to the control condition were asked to imagine that the interaction partner mentions that he responded to a ‘‘job advertisement which was looking for a person to be a research assistant in a study on ‘getting to know new people.’ ’’ [...] First, participants were asked to imagine being greeted by a White man in his mid- to late 30 s, being asked by the researcher to have an informal chat, walking out of the lab with the person, discussing where to sit, walking to a quiet outdoor area, and commencing a conversation with the new person. After the differences in self-disclosures, all participants, irrespective of the interaction partner, were asked to imagine having a discussion with the new person about their family; their favorite movies, music, and hobbies; along with other interests. Finally, all participants were asked to imagine saying good-bye to the person before they opened their eyes. After the interaction, all participants were asked to complete a survey that included the same mental illness-related measures from the pretest (Dangerousness Scale, Affective Scale, and Social Distancing Scale) as well as the pretest items focused on attitudes toward older students, as a distractor. [...]

Type of Prejudice/Bias