Diversity dialogues and other group exercises have the admirable goal of reducing intergroup tensions and making people of different backgrounds feel closer. But those efforts may be misguided if they don't take into account power differences and the real needs of minority groups, finds new research.

In an article in press in Psychological Science, social psychologists Tamar Saguy, PhD, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University; Nicole Tausch, PhD, of Cardiff University in Wales; Jack Dovidio, PhD, of Yale University; and Felicia Pratto, PhD, of the University of Connecticut found that bonding among people of different groups doesn't necessarily translate to social justice.

In one study, the team assigned 210 students to three-person groups that were deemed either high- or low-power based on items they were given to distribute to others. The high-power groups were told they'd have the chance later in the experiment to distribute credits toward completing a course research-participation assignment, while the low-power groups were told they would get to distribute marbles, a meaningless resource.

Then, the high- and low-power groups were brought together to discuss either issues they had in common that were related to the study conditions—such as discussing similar steps they took in the study—or differences related to the study conditions, such as differences between the tasks the groups would do next. After the interaction, the high-power groups decided how many credits to give the other group, while the low-power groups decided how many marbles to give.

Not unexpectedly, people in groups that discussed commonalities felt more positively toward their discussion partners.

But that warm and fuzzy feeling did not translate into similarly positive actions, the team found. Whether the groups had developed a friendly bond or not, the high-power groups gave a relatively low number of credits to the low-power groups, while the low-power groups distributed the marbles equally.

At the same time, however, low-power people in the group-bonding condition expected to receive more credits than those in the "differences" condition. In essence, they believed that bonding would translate into more benevolent actions, the team found.

In a second study in the same paper, the team then investigated the processes by which pleasant and friendly contact can lead people in low-power groups to be unrealistically optimistic about the benevolence of those in high-power groups. In the study, 175 Arab students who were Israeli citizens completed questionnaires about Jewish-Arab relations. The team chose this group because according to objective measures of income and political power, they are in a low-power position compared to Israeli Jews, Dovidio notes.

The Arab students noted the number of Jewish friends they had; their feelings toward Jews; to what extent they felt that the inequality between the groups was just; whether they thought Jews were generally fair toward Arabs; and whether they saw the need to support change that would improve the position of Arabs in Israel.

Students who perceived Jews as fairer and more likely to promote equality were less interested in supporting social change to improve their group's situation than those who perceived them as less fair and less likely to promote social equality, the researchers found. The results square with studies showing that the more likely people are to see their disadvantage as structurally related and unfair, the more likely they are to take social action to improve their lot, the authors note. They also suggest that friendly relations, when they distract minority groups from attending to inequities, may sometimes run counter to social change.

Taken together, the findings suggest that any intergroup dialogue that is serious about promoting justice must take these factors into account, Dovidio believes. Focusing on liking alone can impede real social change toward equality, but it can also create a foundation for beginning deeper but more difficult exchange.

"You want to get beyond simply liking one another to the real issues of inequity and disparities that exist between groups, and to create a space where you can explore each others' perspectives and understand each other," he says.

It's not that dialogues promoting positive bonding can't be successful, he adds—but they need to recognize the groups' differences in goals, needs and motivations.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.