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Social psychology: Altruism · Attribution · Attitudes · Conformity · Discrimination · Groups · Interpersonal relations · Obedience · Prejudice · Norms · Perception · Index · Outline

Prejudice is, as the name implies, the process of "pre-judging" something. It implies coming to a judgment on a subject before learning where the preponderance of evidence actually lies, or forming a judgment without direct experience. Holding a politically unpopular view is not in itself prejudice, and politically popular views are not necessarily free of prejudice. When applied to social groups, prejudice generally refers to existing biases toward the members of such groups, often based on social stereotypes; and at its most extreme, results in groups being denied benefits and rights unjustly or, conversely, unfairly showing unwarranted favor towards others.

The word prejudice (or foredeeming) is most often used to refer to preconceived, usually unfavorable, judgments toward people or a person because of gender, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race/ethnicity, language, nationality or other personal characteristics. It can also refer to unfounded beliefs[1] and may include "any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence."[2] Gordon Allport defined prejudice as a "feeling, favorable or unfavorable, toward a person or thing, prior to, or not based on, actual experience."[citation needed]

This can be seen even when the resource is insignificant. In the Robber’s Cave experiment,[3] negative prejudice and hostility was created between two summer camps after sports competitions for small prizes. The hostility was lessened after the two competing camps were forced to cooperate on tasks to achieve a common goal.

Dr Zounish Rafique On Prejudice in Holmes, G (2010) Psychology in the Real World: Community-based groupwork. PCCS Books.addressed a number of questions about prejudice in the following manner

Is prejudice a consequence of categorisation?

It has been argued that prejudices are formed through our tendency to categorise information and to form heuristics (mental short-cuts), which are used to make sense of new information. Thus, the first stage in forming prejudices is the creation of a category into which people are included based on identified characteristics. This then allows us to react to new people based on our existing beliefs. Whilst there are advantages for us in being able to do this, one of the downsides is that it leads to the formation of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ which can come to be seen as more homogenous than they actually are (e.g. the belief that ‘they’re all like that’). Members of out-groups are prone to being seen as having less favourable attributes and so prejudices about them are more likely to develop.

Does prejudice maintain self-esteem?[]

This idea suggests that prejudices maintain and enhance self-esteem by allowing people to view the groups of which they are members, and consequently themselves, as superior to out-groups, whose members are seen as inferior; thus people elevate themselves in terms of perceived status and consequently self-esteem. Tajfel (1982) designed an experiment to test this in which strangers were assigned to groups based on arbitrary criteria. He found that people very quickly rated the members of their group more positively and allocated more rewards to them. So, even when the reasons for in-group membership are fairly innocuous, people appear to be motivated to ‘win’ against the out-group, and this serves to enhance self-esteem for individuals and pride and unity in their group. One result of this, however, is that it can result in the unfair treatment of members of the out-group (discrimination).

Are we conditioned to be prejudiced?[]

Many of our behaviours can be thought of as becoming acquired through conditioning and our views and attitudes might similarly be learned. The repeated pairing of a negative attribute with a specific group might lead to prejudice e.g. ‘all schizophrenics are dangerous’. Views acquired in this way by classical conditioning (the repeated pairing of two stimuli e.g. in newspaper articles ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘violence’) might be reinforced by operant conditioning processes, such as approval from peers for stating such views or for behaving in a discriminatory way towards someone from that group (e.g. applause from people in a public meeting for stating that ‘a residential facility for the mentally ill should not be allowed in our neighbourhood’). In this way, explicit and implicit messages can be transmitted from generation to generation and become part of a general culture of prejudice. Research studies have shown that children can learn prejudiced attitudes from their parents, but these correlations are typically low (e.g. Connell, 1972), suggesting that learning theory may not provide a comprehensive explanation of prejudice.

Is prejudice caused by competition for limited resources?[]

The realistic conflict theory (Sherif, 1966) proposed that conflict and prejudice arise when people are competing for limited resources. It has been documented that prejudice, discrimination, and violence against out-group members is positively correlated with times of economic difficulty. This phenomenon may interact with other processes that lead to prejudice and discrimination (e.g. scapegoating – where a group seeks a simple cause of a social problem in order to easily solve it by getting rid of the cause and therefore the problem). When jobs are scarce, immigrants are more likely to be blamed: ‘They come over here and take all our jobs – send them back’.This can be seen even when the resource is insignificant. In the Robber’s Cave experiment,[4] negative prejudice and hostility was created between two summer camps after sports competitions for small prizes. The hostility was lessened after the two competing camps were forced to cooperate on tasks to achieve a common goal.

Is prejudice a defence?[]

In psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanismsare used to cope with uncomfortable feelings and to maintain self-image. The use of some defences (such as projection) may be highly likely to lead to prejudice. Projection occurs when we deny particular characteristics in ourselves that we feel disturbed by or uncomfortable with and project them onto others e.g. sexual attraction that we feel towards members of the same sex might disturb us, we see it as dirty, and we project this onto others, seeing homosexual men or lesbians as dirty and disturbing. The more we fight against our feelings (e.g. the complexities of who and what we find attractive) the more we might need to project out. This can tie in with the process of scapegoating, where if the scapegoat is got rid of (the extermination of gay men and lesbians, as tried in Nazi Germany) then there is hope that the disturbing feelings will also go.

Are certain types of people more likely to categorise in this way?[]

Within the four types of temperament that David Keirsey has proposed, guardians score highly in terms of ‘judging’ – they seem to be more wired up to constantly make judgments about what is right and wrong/good and bad than people with other temperaments. This might lead people to readily see groups of people as good or bad e.g. ‘black people are lazy’ or ‘black people are tremendously hard working’. In terms of character (the part of our personality that is shaped by experience), Theodor Adorno’s work centred on the idea that people with harsh, disciplinarian parents are more likely to develop authoritarian personalities themselves, which includes traits centred on conformity, intolerance, and insecurity. People with this kind of character appear to be prone to holding prejudiced views.

Do mental health services, through the process of categorisation, add to prejudice?[]

Diagnoses regarding physical health problems provide doctors with short-cuts for describing people who are exhibiting particular symptoms, but this way of categorising people appears to lack validity in the area of mental health (see Boyle, 1999). In other areas of medicine the use of diagnosis has enabled access to specialist help that is more effective than home treatment and assisted research that has provided accumulative insights into the underlying causes of health problems. These benefits are not so apparent in the area of mental health, where the disadvantages of diagnosis are significant, for example the prejudice and harm suffered by people thus labelled (which in Nazi Germany involved the easily located ‘mentally ill’ being given a ‘mercy death’). The differences between ‘them’ (the mad) and ‘us’ (the sane) can be exaggerated, resulting in a homogenised view of ‘the mentally ill’, whereas the evidence points to great variation in people’s behaviour, even between two people with the same tightly defined psychiatric diagnosis. A ‘mental disorder’ can come to be viewed as representing a stable characteristic of a person, rather than each individual being seen as unique and whose behaviour largely consists of moment-to-moment reactions to environments. A psychiatric diagnosis can become an explanation for behaviour (rather than solely a description) – ordinary and predictable reactions to extreme situations (e.g. anger and depression about losing one’s liberty) may then be attributed to a psychiatric disorder that a person is suffering rather than a fairly predictable outcome attributed to a particular environmental situation. Having formal ways of categorising people as ‘mentally ill’ or ‘sane’ perhaps enables the ‘sane’ to bolster their sense of sanity at the expense of the ‘mad’, onto whom they can project their fears (e.g. of their own instability, eccentricity or lack of self-control). As social historians such as Michel Foucault have revealed, there is a long history of categorisation, confinement and experimentation on people who behave in ways that disturb, frighten, or create inconvenience for the people with power to categorise and confine, and prejudices with such long histories are not easy for societies to let go of.

=How can prejudice be reduced?[]

Gordon Allport (1954) proposed that, under the right conditions, interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways of reducing prejudice. The basic premise is that, as we get to know more about individual people, we will find our ways of categorising them, and our views about the group into which we categorise them, challenged. We will thus come to have views that are more fully rounded than those based on stereotypes and prejudice. According to the contact hypothesis, in order for this to occur the following must be present:

1. Mutual interdependence

2. A common goal

3. Equal status of group members

4. Social norms in place that promote equality.

Controversies and prominent topics[]

One can be prejudiced against, or have a preconceived notion about someone due to any characteristic they find to be unusual or undesirable. A few commonplace examples of prejudice are those based on someone’s race, gender, nationality, social status, sexual orientation or religious affiliation, and controversies may arise from any given topic.

Prejudice in childhood[]

Main article: Prejudice in childhood


Main article: Sexism

The term sexism is generally linked to negative female sentiments that derive from the belief that females are worth less or less capable than males.[5] The discussion of such sentiments, and actual gender differences and stereotypes continue to be controversial topics. Throughout history, women have been thought of as being subordinate to men, often being ignored in areas like the academic arena or belittled altogether. Traditionally, men were thought of as being more capable than women, mentally and physically.[5] In the field of Social Psychology, prejudice studies like the “Who Likes Competent Women” study led the way for gender-based research on prejudice [5] This resulted in two broad themes or focuses in the field: the first being a focus on attitudes toward gender equality, and the second focusing on people’s beliefs about men and women [5] Today studies based on sexism continue in the field of psychology as researchers try to understand how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influence and are influenced by others.


Main article: Nationalism

Nationalism is a sentiment based on common cultural characteristics that binds a population and often produces a policy of national independence or separatism.[6] It suggests a “shared identity” amongst a nation's people that minimizes differences withing the group and emphasizes perceived boundaries between the group and non-members.[7] This leads to the assumption that members of the nation have more in common than they actually do, that they are “culturally unified,” even if injustices within the nation based on differences like status and race exist.[7] Nationalism, during times of conflict between one nation and another, is controversial since it may function as a buffer for criticism when it comes to the nation’s own problems since it makes the nation’s own hierarchies and internal conflicts appear to be natural.[7] It may also serve a way of rallying the people of the nation in support of a particular political goal.[7] Nationalism usually involves a push for conformity, obedience, and solidarity amongst the nation’s people and can result, not only in feelings of public responsibility, but also a narrow sense of community due to the exclusion of those who are considered outsiders.[7] Since the identity of nationalists is linked to their allegiance to the state, the presence of strangers who do not share this allegiance may result in hostility.[7]


Main article: Classism

Classism is defined by the World English Dictionary as, “...a biased or discriminatory attitude on distinctions made between social or economic classes.”[8] The idea of separating people based on class is controversial in itself. Some argue that economic inequality is an unavoidable aspect of society, so there will always be a ruling class.[9] Some also argue that even within the most egalitarian societies in history, some form of ranking based on social status takes place. Therefore, one may believe the existence of social classes is a natural feature of society.[10] Others argue the contrary. According to anthropological evidence, for the majority of the time the human species has been in existence, we have lived in a manner in which the land and resources were not privately owned.[10] Also, when social ranking did occur, it was not antagonistic or hostile like the current class system.[10] This evidence has been used to support the idea that the existence of a social class system is unnecessary. Overall, society has yet to come to a consensus over the necessity of the class system, nor has society been able to deal with the hostility and prejudice that occurs because of the class system.

Sexual discrimination[]

Main article: Homophobia

One’s sexual orientation is a “predilection for homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality”.[11] Like most minority groups, homosexuals and bisexuals are not immune to prejudice or stereotypes from the majority group. They may experience hatred from others because of their sexual preferences; a term for such intense hatred based upon one’s sexual orientation is homophobia. Due to what social psychologists call the vividness effect, a tendency to notice only certain distinctive characteristics, the majority population tends to draw conclusions like gays flaunt their sexuality.[12] Such images may be easily recalled to mind due to their vividness, making it harder appraise the entire situation.[12] The majority population may not only think that homosexuals flaunt their sexuality or are “too gay,” but may also erroneously believe that homosexuals are easy to identify and label as being gay or lesbian when compared to others who are not homosexual.[13] The idea of heterosexual privilege seems to flourish in society. Research and questionnaires are formulated to fit the majority—heterosexuals.[14] This discussion of whether heterosexuals are the privileged group and whether homosexuals are a minimized group is controversial. Research shows that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a powerful feature of many labor markets. For example, controlling for human capital, studies show that gay men earn 10% - 32% less than heterosexual men in the United States, and that there is significant discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation in many labor markets.[15]


Main article: Racism

Racism is defined as “the belief that races exist, that physical characteristics determine cultural traits, and that racial characteristics make some groups superior.[16] By separating people into hierarchies based upon their race, it has been argued that unequal treatment among the different groups of people is just and fair due to their genetic differences.[16] Racism can occur amongst any group that can be identified based upon physical features or even characteristics of their culture.[16] Though people may be lumped together and called a specific race, everyone does not fit neatly into such categories, making it hard to define and describe a race accurately.[16]

Scientific racism began to flourish in the eighteenth century and was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary studies, as well as ideas taken from the writings of philosophers like Aristotle; for example, Aristotle believed in the concept of “natural slaves”.[16] This concept focuses on the necessity of hierarchies and how some people are bound to be on the bottom of the pyramid. Though racism has been a prominent topic in history, there is still debate over whether race actually exists[citation needed], making the discussion of race a controversial topic. Even though the concept of race is still being debated, the effects of racism are apparent. Racism and other forms of prejudice can affect a person’s behavior, thoughts and feelings, and social psychologists strive to study exactly that.

Religious discrimination[]

Main article: Religious discrimination

While various religions teach their members to be tolerant of those who are different and to have compassion, throughout history there have also been instances where religion has been used to promote hate.[17] Researchers have done various studies explore the relationship between religion and prejudice; thus far, they have received mixed results. A study done with US college students found that those who reported religion to be very influential in their lives seem to have a higher rate of prejudice than those who reported not being religious.[18] Other studies found that religion has a positive affect on people as far as prejudice is concerned.[18] This difference in results may be attributed to the differences in religious practices or religious interpretations amongst the individuals. Those who practice “institutionalized religion,” which focuses more on social and political aspects of religious events, are more likely to have an increase in prejudice.[19] Those who practice “interiorized religion,” in which believers devote themselves to their beliefs, are most likely to have a decrease in prejudice.[19]

Linguistic discrimination[]

Main article: Linguistic discrimination

Individuals or groups may be treated unfairly treatment based solely on their use of language. This use of language may include the individual's native language or other characteristics of the person's speech, such as an accent, the size of vocabulary (whether the person uses complex and varied words), and syntax. It may also involve a person's ability or inability to use one language instead of another. In the mid-1980s, Linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, captured this idea of discrimination based on language as the concept of linguicism. Kangas defined linguicism as the ideologies and structures used to, "...legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are defined on the basis of language."[20]


Humans have an evolved propensity to think categorically about social groups, manifested in cognitive processes with broad implications for public and political endorsement of multicultural policy, according to Crisp and Meleady.[21] They postulated a cognitive-evolutionary account of human adaptation to social diversity that explains general resistance to multiculturalism, and offer a reorienting call for scholars and policy-makers who seek intervention-based solutions to the problem of prejudice.

Reducing prejudice[]

Academics Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp conducted a meta-analysis of 515 studies involving a quarter of a million participants in 38 nations to examine how intergroup contact reduces prejudice. They found that three mediators are of particular importance: Intergroup contact reduces prejudice by (1) enhancing knowledge about the outgroup, (2) reducing anxiety about intergroup contact, and (3) increasing empathy and perspective taking. While all three of these mediators had mediational effects, the mediational value of increased knowledge was less strong than anxiety reduction and empathy.[22]

See also[]

References & Bibliography[]

  1. William James wrote, "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."Quotable Quotes – Courtesy of The Freeman Institute
  2. (March 1972). Poultry and Prejudice. Psychologist Today 5 (10): 53–6.
  3. (1988) The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.Template:Pn
  4. (1988) The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.Template:Pn
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Dovidio, John, Peter Glick, and Laurie Rudman. On the Nature of Prejudice. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 108. Print.
  6. World English Dictionary
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 (2003) Culture of Prejudice: Arguments in Critical Social Science, Toronto: Broadview Press.
  8. World English Dictionary, [1] “Classism”]
  9. Blackwell, Judith, Murray Smith, and John Sorenson. Culture of Prejudice: Arguments in Critical Social Science. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2003. 145. Print.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Blackwell, Judith, Murray Smith, and John Sorenson. Culture of Prejudice: Arguments in Critical Social Science. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2003. 146. Print.
  11. World English Dictionary, [2] “Sexual Orientation]
  12. 12.0 12.1 Anderson, Kristin. “Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 198. Print.
  13. Anderson, Kristin. “Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 200. Print.
  14. Anderson, Kristin. “Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 204. Print.
  15. Tilcsik, A. (2011). "Pride and Prejudice: Employment Discrimination against Openly Gay Men in the United States." American Journal of Sociology, 117(2), 586-626.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 Blackwell, Judith, Murray Smith, and John Sorenson. Culture of Prejudice: Arguments in Critical Social Science. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2003. 37-38. Print.
  17. On the Nature of Prejudice. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 413. Print.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Dovidio, John, Peter Glick, and Laurie Rudman. On the Nature of Prejudice. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 413. Print.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Dovidio, John, Peter Glick, and Laurie Rudman. On the Nature of Prejudice. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 414. Print.
  20. Quoted in Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove, and Phillipson, Robert, "'Mother Tongue': The Theoretical and Sociopolitical Construction of a Concept." In Ammon, Ulrich (ed.) (1989). Status and Function of Languages and Language Varieties, p. 455. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co. ISBN 3-11-011299-X.
  21. (2012). Adapting to a Multicultural Future. Science 336 (6083): 853–5.
  22. (2008). How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice? Meta-analytic tests of three mediators. European Journal of Social Psychology 38 (6): 922–934.

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Oxford: Harpers.

Allport, G. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

Boyle, M (1999) Diagnosis. In C Newnes, G Holmes & C Dunn (eds) This is Madness: A critical look at psychiatry and the future of mental health services. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Connell, R. W. (1972). Political socialization in the American family: The evidence reexamined. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 323-333.

Foucault, M. (1961). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London and New York: Routledge.

Keirsey, D (1998) Please Understand Me: Temperament, character, intelligence. Del Mar, CA: Prometheus.

Sherif, M. (1966) In common predicament: Social psychology of intergroup conflict and cooperation. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Tajfel, H. (1982) Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Key texts[]


  • Bagley, C., Verma, GK, Mallick, K. and Young, L. (1979) Personality, Self-esteem and Prejudice, Farnborough: Saxon House.
  • Bethlehem, D. W. (1985) A Social Psychology of Prejudice, London: Croom Helm.
  • Dorschel, A., Rethinking prejudice. Aldershot, Hampshire – Burlington, Vermont – Singapore – Sydney: Ashgate, 2000 (New Critical Thinking in Philosophy, ed. Ernest Sosa, Alan H. Goldman, Alan Musgrave et alii) ISBN 0-7546-1387-9
  • Young-Bruehl, E. (1996) The Anatomy of Prejudices. Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-03190-3),[1]


  • Agnew, C. R., Thompson, V D. and Gaines. S. 0.. Jr (2000) Incorporating proximal and distal influences on prejudice: Testing a general model across outgroups, Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. 26(4), 403-18.
  • Bethlehem, D.W. and Kingsley, P.R. (1976) Zambian student attitudes toward others, based on tribe, class, and rural-urban dwelling, Journal of Social Psychology 100:189-98.
  • Hepburn, C. and Locksley, A. (1983) Subjective awareness of stereotyping: do we know when our judgements are prejudices? Social Psychology Quarterly 46: 311-18.
  • Middleton, R. (1976) Regional differences in prejudice, [[American Sociological Review] 41: 94-117.
  • Weima, J. (1964) The relationship of personality and non-personality factors to prejudice, Journal of Social Psychology 63: 129-37.

Additional material[]


  • Adorno, Th. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J. and Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritatian personality. New York: Harper.


  • Google Scholar
  • (2001). Social cognition: Categorical person perception. British Journal of Psychology 92: 239–55.
  • (1998). Stereotype efficiency reconsidered: Encoding flexibility under cognitive load. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75 (3): 589–606.
  • (1997) "Subtle Prejudice for Modern Times" Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals, 92–160, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

External links[]

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