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.

Explanations for Prejudice Explanations for Prejudice

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Contents
Table of contents
    • What is prejudice?
    • How is prejudice different from discrimination?
    • What are causes of prejudice?
    • What are cognitive explanations of prejudice?
    • What are examples of prejudice?

    Difference between Prejudice and Discrimination

    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.

    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

    Discrimination is the behavioural component of prejudice – when we treat people differently because of negative attitudes towards one of their characteristics.

    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.

    Discrimination can come in the form of many different things. It can be hate speech, preferential treatment, not giving someone a raise, not hiring someone, physical harm, and death. Remember, discrimination can include police brutality towards someone due to their skin colour but it can also be not hiring someone because they’re too young.

    Causes of Prejudice

    There are a lot of different causes of prejudice, depending on the type of prejudice. It can be societal, ignorance, inequalities, stubbornness, and unwillingness to learn.

    Photograph of a white man who is angry at the camera. StudySmarterFig. 1 Ignorance and unwillingness to learn.

    Let’s look at racism in the United States as an example. When the United States was getting colonised, millions of Africans were taken from their homes and shipped across the ocean to be slaves. It was societal that black people were considered to be lower than white people in the United States. Even a couple of hundred years later, the effects of this are still in play. It was, and is still for some parts, ingrained in society that black people are not as deserving or trustworthy as their white peers. This societal racism affects all areas of society, including the infamously skewed number of police arrests of black Americans.

    In addition to racism against black Americans being societal, it can also come from ignorance. People with prejudice might not admit that they are prejudiced and therefore will not admit that they are racist. They will then teach their racist beliefs to their children, continuing the cycle. Additionally, since these people will not admit that they are racist, they are not willing to learn.

    Cognitive Explanations of Prejudice

    How can we compare and contrast cognitive explanations of prejudice? Both the Realistic Conflict Theory 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.

    Realistic Conflict Theory (RTC)

    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.

    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.

    During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, people were not sure how long they would be confined to their homes. Due to this, people stocked up on food and hoarded household necessities. One product that was surprisingly sold out in many stores was toilet paper. This limited resource caused hostile attitudes among shoppers.

    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.

    If you are an adamant fan of a specific sports team, chances are that you feel very negatively opposed to their rival team. As a result of this, you also dislike the rival team’s fans even though you don’t know them. This is an example of SIT because you are categorising the fans purely based on their favourite football team and not who they are as a person.

    Photograph of a football stadium. StudySmarterFig. 2 How do you feel toward your rival sports team?

    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).

    Prejudice exists in all types of societies and cultures. Every day, people are treated differently or not given opportunities because of someone else’s prejudice. Women and people of colour experience prejudice in their pay, often receiving lower pay than their white male peers. Many jobs nowadays are looking to hire experienced professionals for entry-level jobs, restricting access from younger applicants. Black women are told their hair cannot be in its natural state at work despite all white women having their hair in its natural state.

    Unfortunately, prejudice can also inhibit people from getting the care they need. People in the LGBT+ community can be denied health care or medication when they disclose that they have same-sex partners.

    Compare and Contrast Psychological Explanations for Prejudice and Discrimination

    Along with cognitive explanations, there are also psychological explanations for prejudice and discrimination. Let’s review two of the main explanations – personality traits and situational factors.

    Personality Traits

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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?

    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

    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.

    Within a culture, someone’s upbringing can have a major influence on prejudice and discrimination. Often when parents are raising their children, they impart their beliefs onto their kids. If these beliefs are racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, or ageist, the children have a higher chance of also developing these beliefs. This is different from situational factors because the situational factor is only an influence at that moment, while someone’s upbringing has influenced them their entire lives.

    Explanations for Prejudice - Key takeaways

    • Prejudice is a negative attitude toward a group and its members, often involving unfair beliefs (stereotypes) and negative feelings
    • Discrimination is the behavioural component of prejudice – when we treat people differently because of negative attitudes towards one of their characteristics
    • Prejudice can happen because it is can be societal, ignorance, inequalities, stubbornness, and unwillingness to learn
    • Realistic conflict theory and social identity theory are cognitive explanations of prejudice
    • Personality types (authoritarian personality, right-wing authoritarianism, and social dominance orientation) affect prejudice

    References

    1. Allport GW. The Nature of Prejudice. Doubleday; Garden City, NY: 1954.
    Explanations for Prejudice Explanations for Prejudice
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Explanations for Prejudice

    What are the main causes of prejudice?

    Causes of prejudice can be societal, ignorance, inequalities, stubbornness, and unwillingness to learn. 

    What is the cognitive explanation of 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.  

    What are the examples of cognitive explanations of prejudice?

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

    What are the 3 theories of prejudice?

    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.

    What are the 4 sources of prejudice?

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

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When can superordinate goals worsen conflict?

    Who came up with the social identity theory?

    What is one of the applications of the social identity theory (1970)?

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