Positive imagined contact is actively chosen: Exploring determinants and consequences of volitional intergroup imagery in a conflict-ridden setting

Publication Year


Journal Article

Past research has ascertained the benefits of involuntary, “forced” exposure to positive imagined contact. This research explored determinants and consequences of actively chosen imagined contact in a setting of entrenched intergroup conflict. In Study 1, when given an unvalenced visualisation scenario enabling participants to steer the visualisation in any direction they wanted, Turkish Cypriots visualised an intergroup interaction nondistinguishable in quality to that of those assigned to a positive scenario. In Study 2, when asked to actively choose between visualising a positive or a negative intergroup interaction, Turkish Cypriots disproportionally preferred positive over negative contact. The chosen visualisation reflected mood and valenced confirmation biases and resulted in virtuous (vs. vicious) effects on group-level outcomes. These findings shed a first light on the psychological underpinnings of volitional intergroup imagery and indicate that intergroup imagery is a safe way of engaging with the outgroup even in contexts of entrenched conflict. © The Author(s) 2018.

Group Processes & Intergroup Relations
Type of Article
Journal Article
Full text

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Study 1

[...] To ascertain whether individuals from a conflict-stricken society would visualise a positive or a negative imagined contact scenario when given the chance to freely choose its qualities, we compared the qualities and the effects of an “unvalenced” imagined contact scenario with those generated in conditions in which we instructed individuals to visualise an explicitly positive and an explicitly negative imagined contact scenario. [...] Hence, we hypothesised that the unvalenced imagined contact scenario would align in qualities and effects more with the negative imagined contact condition than with the positive imagined contact scenario. We also included a no-contact control scenario of an outdoor scene as a control condition.


Participants and Design One hundred and eighty-two participants from the Turkish Cypriot community (115 female, 62 male, and five gender unspecified; M = 30.11 years, SD = 11.80) volunteered for a study on “social issues in Cyprus.” [...] Participants were randomly assigned to an unvalenced, negative, no-contact control, or a positive imagined contact condition (n = 47, 49, 44, and 42, respectively) and then completed a paper questionnaire in a research laboratory.

Procedure and Materials

Previsualisation attitude measure. Prior to the imagined contact manipulation participants completed an evaluation task or “feeling thermometer” to express their attitudes towards Greek Cypriots. [...]

Imagined contact task. To ensure that valence appraisals associated with completing the attitude measures did not interfere with the imagined contact manipulation, all participants then engaged in a filler task (30-second visualisation and open-ended description of an outdoor scene). At this point, three groups received the experimental manipulation of unvalenced contact, negative imagined contact, or positive imagined contact. Participants took a minute to imagine (unvalenced/negative and unenjoyable/positive and enjoyable) contact with a Greek Cypriot stranger and then wrote a detailed description of the exchange; in the unvalenced condition, participants were simply asked to imagine contact with a Greek Cypriot stranger, no specification was made with regard to the valence of the scenario. The control condition was a no-contact outdoor scenario [...].

Contact valence checks. Next, participants expressed their feelings during the visualisation exercise [...].

Outcome measures. To test postvisualisation attitude change, while reducing practice effects and demand characteristics associated with repeated measurement, this time participants rated how they felt toward Greek Cypriots in general on bipolar scale items [...].

Study 2

[...] in Study 2 we endeavoured to investigate freely chosen imagined contact further by exploring the relative prevalence of positive versus negative imagery choices, their determinants, and consequences for group-level outcomes. To this end, participants were given the opportunity to choose between engaging in a positive or a negative imagined contact scenario. We tested two potential reasons why individuals might choose to visualise positive imagined contact over negative imagined contact: mood regulation and expectancy confirmation.

Mood Regulation

Individuals make strategic attempts at managing their affective experiences. [...] strategic choice of scenario valence might be contingent upon participant mood and, in turn, choosing to visualise positive contact might significantly improve (vs. depress) existing moods and colour group-level processes in mood-congruent fashions.

Expectancy Confirmation and Violation

Expectancy confirmation or evaluative fit is predicted by both cognitive accounts of schema congruency and the social identity perspective. This mechanism could also underpin imagined contact choices.

Schema defence. The central roles of social categorisation and social identity in intergroup relations are widely acknowledged. The most basic features associated with these processes are the categorisation of people into ingroups and outgroups, which forms the psychological basis for prejudice and stereotyping. [...]


Participants and Design Two hundred and six participants from the Turkish Cypriot community (107 female, 98 male, and one gender unspecified; M = 34.76 years, SD = 13.94) volunteered for a study on “social issues in Cyprus” and completed the battery of questions in a research laboratory. [...]

Procedure and Materials

Pre- and postvisualisation measures. Prior to the visualisation task participants completed the PANAS (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule) [...]. Having completed the imagery task [...], participants once again completed the PANAS. [...] Participants next completed a set of reliable past contact measures adapted to the Cypriot context. They first focused on direct contact experiences: Participants indicated the quantity of positive and negative past contact with the outgroup [...], as well as overall past contact quality on 7-point bipolar scales [...]. Storytelling about the outgroup followed; we measured negative and positive family stories [...]. Finally, we measured direct and indirect cross-group friendship [...].

Choice of imagined contact. At this point, participants were asked to choose between one of two intergroup contact scenarios: A positive and enjoyable or negative and unenjoyable interaction with a Greek Cypriot stranger, by ticking one of two decision option boxes labelled as “positive” and “negative.” [...] Next, participants wrote, in as much detail as they wanted, the scenario they imagined.

Contact valence checks. After the freely chosen intergroup imagery task, participants completed a number of process variables aimed at investigating the downstream consequences of actively chosen contact, including the contact valence checks from Study 1.

Postimagery outcome measures. [...] Participants rated how easy or difficult it was to imagine the interaction with a Greek Cypriot [...]. To measure positive action tendencies towards the outgroup, participants indicated the extent to which they “felt a desire to seek contact with Greek Cypriots” [...] and to measure negative action tendencies, they answered “How often have you felt a desire to hurt Greek Cypriots physically, e.g., to attack, to strike out, and so on?” [...]. To measure outgroup evaluations we used the same outgroup attitude measure as in Study 1 whereby participants rated how they feel toward Greek Cypriots [...]. Lastly, outgroup trust was assessed [...].

Type of Prejudice/Bias