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Explanations for Prejudice

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Explanations for Prejudice

What assumptions would come to mind if you met someone with an Irish accent? Would you assume they like to drink or that they swear a lot? Prejudices have a huge impact on how we judge and treat other people. In many cases, they can even be deadly, as the disproportionate persecution of African Americans by the US police shows. That’s why we need to understand the causes of prejudice and what we can do about them.

What is prejudice in psychology?

First, let’s establish what we mean by prejudice in psychology.

Prejudice is defined as a negative attitude toward a group and its members, often involving unfair beliefs (stereotypes) and negative feelings.

Prejudice often develops before we first interact with the group, leading to discriminatory behaviour. Prejudice involves cognitive, behavioural, and affective components.

Explanations for Prejudice Components of prejudice cognitive explanations of prejudice StudySmarterComponents of prejudice - StudySmarter

Allport (1954), who pioneered the literature on ethnic prejudice, defined it as:

An antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalisation directed towards a group. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group as a whole, or toward an individual because he is a member of that group."1

Difference between prejudice and discrimination

Discrimination is the behavioural component of prejudice. However, if you have a negative attitude toward a group, it does not necessarily mean that you will act on it. Prejudice does not always manifest itself in the form of explicit behaviour. But even when they do not, they affect your judgement and feelings about others.

Explanations for Prejudice difference between prejudice and discrimination StudySmarterDiscrimination, Canva

Prejudice examples

In the United States, strong feelings of threat and prejudice against Latino immigrants, often expressed in the media, led to the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico. In addition, a 2018 survey found that four in ten Hispanics in the US reported experiencing discrimination in the past year (National Survey of Latinos, 2018).

In the United Kingdom, religious prejudice against Muslims persists. A 2018 survey found that 70% of Muslims experienced prejudice based on their faith in the past year. Britons themselves also openly expressed prejudice against Muslims in the survey (Abrams, 2018).

What are the causes of prejudice and discrimination?

Prejudice develops as a result of cognitive, situational and personality factors. This section will compare and contrast psychological explanations for prejudice and discrimination.

Realistic Conflict Theory

According to the Realistic Conflict Theory, competition causes prejudice. When two or more groups compete for limited resources (an in-group to which the person belongs and the competing out-group), prejudice against the out-group results. The competing group is considered inferior, and the groups become aggressive toward each other. In contrast, prejudice and hostility decrease when groups work together to achieve common goals.

Robbers Cave experiments, Sherif (1954; 1958; 1961): After two groups of boys participated in a series of contests in which they competed for a reward, they had to characterise both groups – the group to which they belonged and the competing group. The boys were more likely to describe their group in positive terms and the other group in negative terms.

These results indicate that competition was associated with negative attitudes toward the out-group. However, the researchers did not measure the participants’ attitudes before the competitions, so we cannot say that the competition caused prejudice.

Social Identity Theory

Social categorisation and stereotypes help us simplify the complex world around us. Our mind is a cognitive miser, trying to process information as quickly as possible and with as little effort as possible. That’s why stereotypes are so attractive to our cognition. However, mental shortcuts like stereotypes can also lead to incorrect and socially harmful judgments.

Social categorisation is the process by which we automatically classify people as either belonging to our group and being ‘one of us’ (members of the in-group) or as being part of another group, ‘one of them’ (members of the out-group).

We automatically categorise ourselves and other people as members of social groups. According to the Social Identity Theory, it is the sense of belonging to a group, also called social identity, that leads to prejudice. From our social identity, we derive a sense of self-esteem. Therefore, to protect our sense of self-esteem, we tend to judge our groups more favourably and attribute negative characteristics to outside groups.

The minimal group paradigm (Tajfel et al., 1971): Arbitrary group membership alone is sufficient to cause discrimination against the out-group. Participants were shown artwork by two made-up artists and were assigned to a group based on their preference for one of the two artists. They knew no other information about the members of their group or the members of the other groups, only that they were or were not in their group.Participants had to give points to either the group they belonged to or the group that preferred another artist. They assigned points in a way that maximised the difference between the two groups, even if this meant that their group received fewer points than if the difference had been smaller. They favoured their group even when no information about them was known. The fact that members belonged to their group was enough to create a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Comparing cognitive explanations of prejudice

How can we compare and contrast cognitive explanations of prejudice? Both the Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT) and Social Identity Theory (SIT) recognise that prejudice is associated with cognitive biases such as ethnocentrism the sense that one’s group is superior to others.

RCT assumes that competition for limited resources causes hostile attitudes. The out-group is considered a rival, which leads to hostility. The limitation of RCT is that it does not explain how prejudice arises when groups do not compete or why it is so prevalent. In contrast to RCT, SIT suggests that group membership alone can cause prejudice even with no competition.

SIT proposes that prejudice is automatic and that cognitive biases associated with social categorisation are the cause. We perceive others as either part of ‘us’ or ‘them’, and on the basis of this distinction, we are likely to discriminate to protect our self-esteem even when there is nothing to gain. However, SIT simplifies human behaviour and ignores other factors such as history with the group and cultural aspects of the meaning of individualism (individualistic societies vs. collectivistic societies).

Can personality traits cause prejudice and discrimination?

Personality is a central aspect of what a person is. Therefore, we must consider the influence personality has on how someone perceives another and the likelihood of prejudice and discriminatory behaviour.

Individual differences

There is evidence that certain personality types are more likely to be prejudiced. Several theories have been developed to explain empirical studies of individual differences in prejudice.

Authoritarian personality

Adorno (1950) suggested that children who experience conditional love and strict parenting may develop authoritarian personalities. An authoritarian personality is associated with loyalty to one’s group and authority and a negative attitude toward the out-group. Adorno theorised that people with authoritarian personalities are more likely to have and act out prejudices because they direct their anger toward inferior social groups from childhood.

Explanations for Prejudice Prejudice example StudySmarterPrejudice, Canva

Right-wing authoritarianism

Bob Altemeyer (1988) built on the work of Adorno and introduced the idea of right-wing authoritarianism. He proposed that people exhibit high levels of right-wing authoritarianism when they internalise at a young age the idea that the world is a dangerous place. They perceive foreign groups as more threatening and are more prone to prejudice.

Social dominance orientation

Felicia Pratto (1994) proposed a personality dimension characterised by a preference for hierarchy and power imbalance. Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) is thought to develop after experiences of competing for scarce resources. Individuals with a high SDO tend to seek superiority over others and perceive the world as a ‘competitive jungle’.

Cohrs et al. (2012) demonstrated that personality types high in right-wing authoritarianism but not SDO correlated with high levels of negative attitudes towards out-groups. However, just because prejudice appears to be associated with certain personality traits does not necessarily mean that personality determines prejudice. Personality, like attitudes, can change throughout a lifetime.

How do situational and cultural factors affect prejudice?

The situation and cultural factors have some influence on prejudice.

Situational factors

Prejudice can increase when the out-group is portrayed as a threat or competition to ‘us’. How the world is portrayed in the media or by those around us can make us more susceptible to prejudice.In the Akrami et al. (2009) study, individuals who had just been presented with a threatening scenario about their country’s economic future scored higher on a racial prejudice scale than the control group who had not been presented with the scenario.

Consider again the Robbers cave study: does it matter whether the competition or threat is real or perceived as such when it comes to the formation of prejudice?

Integrated threat theory

Stephen and Stephen’s integrated threat theory states that prejudice is an evolutionary response to the sense of threat (which can be real or symbolic) that we experience from other groups. For example, the narrative that homosexuals threaten the traditional family model has led to more prejudice and discrimination against this group, especially in religious circles.

Culture and prejudice

There is some evidence that collectivist cultures are less prone to prejudice than individualist cultures that value competition. However, we might also find an alternative explanation that prejudice is simply not as often explicitly expressed in collectivist cultures.

Milfont et al. (2011) found that in Spain (a collectivist country), more individualistic people express greater prejudice toward minorities, in this case, Gipsies. Collectivists seemed to express more positive views of the minority and were more likely to inhibit prejudice.

Explanations for Prejudice - Key takeaways

  • Prejudice refers to negative attitudes toward a group and its members.
  • Components of prejudice include unfair, inflexible beliefs (stereotypes), negative feelings toward the group, and discriminatory behaviour.
  • Discrimination is the behavioural component of prejudice.
  • According to Realistic Conflict Theory, competition for limited resources causes prejudice.
  • In contrast to RCT, Social Identity Theory proposes that group membership alone can cause prejudice, even without competition.

References

  1. Allport GW. The Nature of Prejudice. Doubleday; Garden City, NY: 1954.

Frequently Asked Questions about Explanations for Prejudice

We automatically categorise people as either ‘us’ or ‘them’. Social categorisation and the belief that the group we belong to is superior causes prejudice. Competition or perceiving the other group as a threat can also worsen prejudice. 

Cognitive explanations state that prejudice is caused by cognitive biases related to social categorisation and social identity. Prejudice develops when we attribute positive characteristics to groups we belong to and negative characteristics to out-groups to protect our self-esteem.  

Examples of cognitive explanations of prejudice include Social Identity Theory and Realistic Conflict Theory. 

The three theories of prejudice include Realistic Conflict Theory, Social Identity Theory and the Social Dominance Orientation personality dimension.


Realistic Conflict Theory proposes competition over scarce resources causes prejudice. Social Identity Theory suggests that social categorisation causes prejudice, while Social Dominance Orientation explains prejudice in terms of personality differences.

Prejudice can be caused by automatic cognitive biases related to social categorisation, personality traits, situational factors like competition or social norms within a culture.

Final Explanations for Prejudice Quiz

Question

What is Sherif’s realistic conflict theory?

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Answer

Sherif’s realistic conflict Theory explains the inter-group conflict in terms of the nature of goals of interacting groups. 

  • Mutually exclusive goals, like competing for scarce resources, produce conflict. 
  • Superordinate (common) goals that require cooperation reduce conflict.

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Question

What were the three key phases of the Robbers Cave experiments?

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The three key phases of the Robbers Cave experiments were in-group formation, inter-group conflict,and conflict reduction.

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How did Sherif encourage group bonding in the in-group formation phase of Robbers Cave studies?

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During the in-group formation phase of Robbers Cave studies, boys spent a week engaging in group activities, like creating a flag for their group, hiking, or swimming.

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What are superordinate goals? How do they affect inter-group conflict?

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Superordinate goals refer to shared goals both groups desire but can only accomplish if they cooperate with each group. Superordinate goals reduce group conflict and encourage group harmony.

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Question

According to the realistic conflict theory, what could reduce conflict between students from two schools that often compete against each other in sports?

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Introducing common goals to students from both schools could reduce conflict between them. For example, students could work together to organise a fundraising event for charity.

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According to the realistic conflict theory, how does conflict between groups develop?

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Answer

According to the theory, mutually exclusive goals, like competing for scarce resources, produce conflict and ethnocentrism.

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Why is ethnocentrism a problem for intergroup relations?

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Ethnocentrism results in more favourable judgements about the in-group and attributing negative characteristics to the out-group.

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When can superordinate goals worsen conflict?

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Common goals worsen conflict when one group contributes more to achieve them.

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What is an alternative explanation for the effectiveness of superordinate goals in reducing conflict?

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Superordinate goals may work because they create a superordinate group identity. This shared identity can result in in-group solidarity stronger than the previous conflict.

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Question

How does realistic conflict theory explain prejudice?  

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Answer

The realistic conflict theory states prejudice develops due to competition for limited resources. Competition produces negative attitudes towards the out-group.

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Question

How can we explain prejudice between groups that are not competing for scarce resources?

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Answer

According to social identity theory, group identity can explain prejudice even in the absence of conflicting goals.

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Question

Who developed the Realistic Conflict Theory? 


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Answer

Sherif (1966).

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Question

What is the definition of prejudice and discrimination?

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Answer

A prejudice is an attitude or judgement about someone based on little knowledge about the person. They are based on assumptions or opinions about another group different from one’s own and are found in groups of different ethnicities, genders, and even football clubs.


Discrimination is the resulting behaviour or treatment enacted based on prejudices.

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Question

Who came up with the social identity theory?

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Answer

Tajfel and Turner (1979).

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According to social identity theory, what is the fundamental belief of how prejudice forms?

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Social identity theory suggests that the formation of groups causes prejudice (not the conflict between them).

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Question

What are the definitions of in-groups and out-groups?

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An in-group is a group of people to which one feels they belong. This group is referred to as ‘we’. One usually shares a common characteristic with this group, but this does not mean that this characteristic is exclusive to their in-group. For example, two football clubs in a city share the common in-group of location, but support different football clubs so would consider either group an out-group.


An out-group is a group of people who identify with a different group than yourself. This is a group to which the person does not belong and is referred to as ‘them’.

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What is social categorisation?

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Social categorisation refers to seeing oneself as part of a group. Everyone belongs to several groups regarding gender, race, religion, and age.

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What is social identification?

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Social identification refers to when one begins to identify more openly with the group and adopt its beliefs, norms, and attitudes.

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What is social comparison?

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Social comparison is when one begins to compare groups in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and sees their group as superior.

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Which behaviour is usually shown to the in-group and out-group respectively?

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Favouritism to the in-group and negative bias to the out-group. This is how prejudice and discrimination form.

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What were the findings of Experiment 1 by Tajfel et al. (1971)?

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Answer

They found significant favouritism toward one’s group AND significant negative bias toward the out-group (but no significant difference between neutral and value groups).

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What were the findings of Experiment 2 by Tajfel et al. (1971)? 

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Answer

The majority of the boys chose to maximise the point difference in favour of their in-group and even failed to maximise their gains only to disadvantage the out-group (negative out-group bias).

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Question

What were the strengths of the study by Tajfel et al. (1971)?

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Answer

  • The study results support the hypothesis and are consistent with social identity theory. It shows that we naturally tend to favour the in-group and discriminate against the out-group.
  • The study was reliable because there were strict controls on the information the boys received and their experiences.
  • The study provides a valuable insight into how prejudice works and shows that being put into a group is enough to trigger prejudice.
  • There has been supporting research whose findings also supported the social identity theory hypothesis (Locksley, Ortix & Hepburn, 1980), (Branthwaite & Jones, 1975), (Brewer & Rothbart, 1980), (Cialdini et al. 1976), and (the Jane Elliott case).

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What were the weaknesses of the study by Tajfel et al. (1971)?

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  • The weaknesses of Tajfel’s study were that it had reduced validity because it claimed to have measured grouping effects without the history of the competition. In contrast, it may have created competition by introducing winning prizes with the points. Demand characteristics may also have affected validity.
  • There were problems with population validity because the sample consisted only of high school students.

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What is an alternative theory of how prejudice is formed?

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Answer

Realistic conflict theory (Sherif, 1966) states that competition must be present for prejudice to occur, not just the presence of in-group and out-group.

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Question

Compare and contrast cognitive explanations for prejudice.

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Answer

Both the Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT) and Social Identity Theory (SIT) recognise that prejudice is associated with cognitive biases such as ethnocentrism – the sense that one’s group is superior to others.

  • RCT assumes that competition for limited resources causes hostile attitudes. The out-group is considered a rival, which leads to hostility. The limitation of RCT is that it does not explain how prejudice arises when groups do not compete or why it is so prevalent.
  • In contrast to RCT, SIT suggests that group membership alone can cause prejudice even with no competition. SIT proposes that prejudice is automatic and that cognitive biases associated with social categorisation are the cause. We perceive others as either part of ‘us’ or ‘them’, and on the basis of this distinction, we are likely to discriminate to protect our self-esteem even when there is nothing to gain.

Show question

Question

How is prejudice defined?

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Answer

Prejudice is a negative attitude toward a group and its members, often involving unfair beliefs (stereotypes) and negative feelings.

Show question

Question

What are the different components associated with prejudice?

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Answer

Prejudice involves cognitive, behavioural and affective components.  

  • The cognitive component refers to negative beliefs about a group (stereotypes).
  • The affective component refers to negative feelings.
  • The behavioural component refers to acts of discrimination.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between prejudice and discrimination?

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Answer

Discrimination is the behavioural component of prejudice. Discrimination is the consequence of prejudice, but prejudice does not always result in discrimination.

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What factors can result in the development of prejudice?

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Answer

Prejudice develops as a result of cognitive, situational and personality factors.  

Show question

Question

How does the Realistic Conflict Theory explain prejudice?

Show answer

Answer

According to the Realistic Conflict Theory, competition causes prejudice. When two or more groups compete over limited resources, prejudice towards the other group develops.

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Question

Describe the evidence for the Realistic Conflict Theory of prejudice.

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Answer

Robbers Cave experiments found that competition between two groups of boys resulted in them developing prejudice toward the group they were competing with. 


When asked to describe both groups, boys tended to negatively describe other group members and members of their own group positively.

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Why are stereotypes attractive to our cognition?

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Answer

Stereotypes allow us to simplify the complexity of the world around us. They allow us to make quick judgements about others based on their group membership without much cognitive effort.

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What does the term cognitive miser refer to in Social Identity Theory?

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The term cognitive miser refers to our mind’s tendency to seek shortcuts that allow us to process information as fast and with as little effort as possible. 

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What are the consequences of using mental shortcuts like stereotypes when judging others?

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Answer

Stereotypes can lead to false and socially harmful judgements, lead to exclusion and discrimination.

Show question

Question

How does the Social Identity Theory explain prejudice?

Show answer

Answer

According to Social Identity Theory, it is the sense of belonging to a group that causes prejudice. 

To protect our self-esteem, we tend to judge groups we belong to more favourably and attribute negative characteristics to the out-groups.

Show question

Question

People tend to see others as either 'one of us' or 'one of them'. How is this phenomenon called?

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Answer

Social categorisation.

Show question

Question

What were the findings of Tajfel’s (1971) minimal group paradigm experiment?

Show answer

Answer

Arbitrary group membership alone is enough for discrimination against the out-group to arise. 

Participants allocated points to maximise the difference between their group and the ‘other’ group’ even when membership was meaningless.

Show question

Question

Explain how Adorno (1950) related the authoritarian personality to prejudice.

Show answer

Answer

Adorno (1950) suggested that children who experience conditional love and strict parenting may develop authoritarian personalities. An authoritarian personality is associated with loyalty to one’s group and authority and a negative attitude toward the out-group. Adorno theorised that people with authoritarian personalities are more likely to have and act out prejudices because they direct their anger toward inferior social groups from childhood.

Show question

Question

What does the study of Akrami et al. (2009) tell us about how situational factors influence prejudice?

Show answer

Answer

People presented with a threatening scenario of an uncertain economic future reported stronger racial prejudices. These findings suggest that certain situational factors like being exposed to narratives that evoke fear can affect prejudice.

Show question

Question

How can culture affect prejudice?

Show answer

Answer

There might be a difference in the tendency to express prejudice between individualist and collectivist cultures.

Milfont et al. (2011) found that in Spain (a collectivist country), more individualistic people express greater prejudice toward minorities, in this case, Gipsies. Collectivists seemed to express more positive views of the minority and were more likely to inhibit prejudice.

Show question

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