25.09.2016

The relationship ripple effect

The Challenge believes that the programmes we offer make a real difference to the lives of the young people who participate on them. Furthermore, we believe that bringing together people from different backgrounds has positive effects on society at large, and is crucial in the development of more united and trusting communities.

Despite this, we are often asked how programmes which touch the lives of only some teenagers can possibly change our society.

It is now well-established in the social sciences that our relationships with colleagues and neighbours who differ from us affect how we relate to people of these backgrounds more generally. Bringing people from different areas of society in touch, therefore, makes a real difference not only to their interpersonal relationships, but also to the way they perceive other social groups.

In fact, recent research testifies to an even more potent consequence of building relationships with people from different backgrounds. As we forge friendships with people who differ from us in age, ethnicity, or social class, we can affect how others in our communities feel about, and behave towards, people who differ from them. Did you know that your father’s friendship with someone of a different ethnic background at work will influence your own attitude towards members of this ethnic group, even when you don’t personally know anybody with this background? Imagine throwing a pebble into a pool of water: the relationships you forge have ripple effects across your community!

How do our relationships make waves in the lives of others?

Major contributors to the ripple effect are social norms. Spend a moment observing the people around you — how they talk to their grandparents, or feel about their new neighbours — and you may sense that their behaviour, how they feel and think about others, is influenced by what is deemed acceptable within our communities. Our relationships with people of other backgrounds influence what people similar to us consider socially appropriate attitudes and behaviours towards other groups in society. And so our behaviour influences that of others around us.

The best thing about this ripple effect is that it offers a way to reach and affect the individuals who have little opportunity to mix with people from other groups in society. Indeed, research now suggests that people living in the most segregated communities benefit the most from having friends, family members, or neighbours who step out of their comfort zones and engage with people who don’t share their background. The ripple effect of cross-background relationships testifies to this: by connecting people from different backgrounds, The Challenge can empower others to make a real difference to society at large.

By Angelika Benz