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What is the concept of prejudice in social psychology?


Prejudice can be defined as a global view or attitude about a group of people; prejudicial views are characterized by their inflexibility, and they are usually considered to be negative and directed toward minority or out-groups. The effects of prejudice in American society, and throughout the world, are generally considered devastating, not only to the individuals who suffer injustice, humiliation, and violence as a result of discrimination based on prejudice but also to the integrity of society as a whole. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups attempt to promote segregation, prejudice, and discrimination, at least partly as a way of promoting a dominant status for the white race. Most people realize that this is both unconstitutional and unfair. Since people have no choice over the race, ethnicity, religion, or gender into which they are born, it is unjust to judge persons solely on the basis of biological givens such as skin color, hair color, facial structure, gender, or other such characteristics. Almost everyone has experienced some prejudice or discrimination and can understand its negative effects on self-esteem and self-image.

A classic book on prejudice that came from the field of social psychology is Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice, published in 1954. His approach to prejudice is still considered contemporary because of his emphasis on cognitive factors such as categorization and normal cognitive bias. There are two broad categories of prejudice: personal prejudice and group prejudice. Allport’s model involves in-group and out-group distinctions. In an extension of Allport’s theory, Thomas Pettigrew proposed the ultimate attribution error in an article he published in 1979. Pettigrew suggests that people tend to favor the actions of people in their in-group (those whom they perceive as being “like them”) and attribute negative motives to the same actions by out-group members. If an in-group member observes a negative act by an out-group member, the in-group member is likely to attribute the action to genetics or some other concrete factor. On the other hand, if an in-group member observes a positive act by an out-group member, he or she may attribute the act to luck, an exception to the rule, high motivation and effort, or the particular situational context in which the behavior occurred.

A study published in 1947 by Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark on color preference of dolls in preschool children showed that even very young children preferred the “white” dolls to those representing their respective race or skin color. In the 1970s, Jane Elliott conducted an experiment with elementary school children in which she instructed the brown-eyed children to sit in the back of the room and told them they could not use the drinking fountain. Blue-eyed children were given special privileges such as extra recess time and extra lunch helpings. The two groups of children were told not to interact with each other. Elliott belittled and berated the brown-eyed children, and their academic performance faltered. The favored blue-eyed group became even more belittling to the brown-eyed children than the teacher was. After several days, roles were reversed, and the negative effects of prejudice were repeated. Eventually all the children disliked one another, demonstrating the destructive effects of status inequalities based on something as superficial as eye color.

Theorizing Prejudicial Influences

Donn Byrne, a social psychologist, has written about theories on the conditions under which prejudice may develop. Byrne and others believe that periods of economic hardship and scarce resources characterized by lack of availability of food and jobs can contribute to the occurrence and intensity of various types of prejudice. In the field of social psychology, this premise is part of what is known as realistic conflict theory. Indeed, throughout history, in periods of resource scarcity and political unrest, the unfair effects of prejudice have flourished. From the mid-fifteenth and sixteenth centuries until the present, racial and religious prejudice leading to discrimination has resulted in violence against different ethnic and religious groups in what has been a worldwide phenomenon. From the United States to the various republics that, until 1992, made up the Soviet Union, and from Northern Ireland to South Africa, these problems have been significant. Efforts made by countries to achieve internal peace and stability have been difficult, at best, given climates of religious or ethnic intolerance and economic hardship.

Class status is one factor that has been found to have a profound effect on influencing prejudicial beliefs and expectations. In the 1940s, an epidemiological study of psychopathology, or mental illness, called the Midtown Study was initiated in Manhattan in New York City, and results were published in the 1960s. A number of stereotypes about lower-class patients that suggested they were incapable of achieving insight into their problems, unable to ask for psychological help, and unable to examine their motives or moods were disputed by this research. In fact, the research showed that lower-class patients did want to achieve psychodynamic understanding and insight into their problems. The research also showed that patients of lower socioeconomic status had less access to treatment facilities than their higher-class counterparts.

Racial and ethnic bias has been found to exist even among mental health professionals, a group of professionals who should, by definition, be objective and neutral in their work; however, very little research has been published in this area. Some investigators found no evidence of racial bias on diagnoses assigned by clinicians who were of different racial backgrounds. Others found that white, middle-class psychiatrists who recorded fewer symptoms for black patients as compared to white patients nevertheless concentrated on the more unusual or bizarre symptoms of the blacks. This practice resulted in the psychopathology of black patients appearing more severe than the psychopathology of white patients. Researchers and clinicians have noted that white patients have more often been given the label “neurotic” and black or Puerto Rican patients given the label “schizophrenic” for similar behaviors. Social psychologist Leonard Derogatis and others caution that race and social class designation are the most prominent indicators that affect psychological assessment and symptom presentation.

Prejudice as an “Ism”

Prejudice that has become widespread takes forms that are sometimes referred to as “isms”: racism, classism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, ableism, and so on. One of the most insidious forms of misunderstanding is the prejudicial attitudes held regarding the disabled, of whom there were more than fifty-six million in the United States in 2010, according to a broad definition by the U.S. Census Bureau. In American society, those with emotional or learning disabilities (the invisible disabilities) often suffer the worst misunderstanding and discrimination caused by ignorance, perpetuation of myths, social ostracism, and avoidance of contact. It is known that nondisabled persons have demonstrated lack of empathy, avoidance of social interaction, lack of eye contact, and lack of respect for the disabled. Research has shown that even disabled persons hold negative attitudes toward other disabled persons if the others have a disability different from their own. In reality, those who are physically disabled have been found to have strong self-concepts and good social interaction skills and have often been more able to provide support to others than the other way around.

Investigating Techniques

Psychologists have developed various techniques for investigating and measuring social attitudes such as prejudice. Various scales exist for this purpose, from the Thurstone scale to the more frequently used Likert format. The Thurstone method of paired comparisons is thought to provide a method for the selection of items on an attitude test. In the Likert format, attitudes are measured according to approval rankings on positive and negative dimensions, with variations in between two opposite rankings as possible selection points. For example, the choices for the question “What do you think of homosexuals holding public office?” would be “strongly approve,” “approve,” “undecided,” “disapprove,” and “strongly disapprove.”

Respondents are asked to rank the intensity and direction of their attitudes by choosing one of the five available choices for a number of similar items. The semantic differential, another popular technique in social-attitude research, presents a concept or set of concepts, such as “Democrat,” “God,” or “Puerto Rican.” The respondent is asked to rate the concept on a set of seven-point scales in which the endpoints are certain adjectives, such as “strong” and “weak,” or “active” and “passive.” The semantic differential has been criticized for difficulty with interpretations derived from it, but it remains popular for its ease of use. Public opinion surveys are also used to measure attitudes either for or against certain candidates, social issues, or legislation. These surveys, although useful, can be plagued with problems, such as interviewer bias, subject selection bias, and question bias, if not carefully designed.


Many practical applications have developed from a knowledge of prejudice and its effects that go beyond surveys and attitude measurement instruments. Women, both Caucasians and minorities, who have been able to gain access to higher education and obtain advanced degrees have found that they are still paid less than men with the same credentials. Moreover, the phenomenon referred to as the glass ceiling suggests that there is only so far a woman can go in terms of advancement through corporate and institutional structures. It is true that very few top corporate positions or top government posts are filled by women. Some people believe that these few positions represent tokenism, or positive actions toward a few women to make it look as though the employer is playing fair. As a result of this glass ceiling, some women have filed discrimination suits and won. Others have taken a different path and have written extensively on the effect of gender bias on women. A 1991 book by Susan Faludi titled Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women describes the insidious price that the author believes has been paid for the small progress made by women in American society.

Different people respond in different ways to the effects of prejudice. Active or effective responses are ones that empower people to confront and correct bias and injustice. In contrast, passive or ineffective responses may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, low self-esteem, and racial self-hatred in reaction to the negative stereotyping effects of prejudice. Minority group members’ angry reactions to racial prejudice have been found ultimately to be a healthy response or a way to “fight back” against being oppressed. This anger, even rage, can evolve into what has been termed cultural paranoia, which is described as a defense mechanism that has allowed blacks and other minority groups to live in a society that is filled with racism. Martin Luther King, Jr., used this mechanism in a positive way to confront and to try to change racial oppression in American society.

Social and Educational Responses

Active, effective responses have been most notable in what might be called empowerment movements. Grass-roots support groups formed for women’s rights, civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, and patients’ rights resulted in various institutions and organizations being formalized by these movements. These movements and their resulting institutions represent active responses to the effects of prejudice. In the late 1980s, for example, an advocacy group for AIDS victims called ACT UP (an acronym for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed to take dramatic measures for calling national attention to the epidemic of AIDS.

In the educational arena, efforts have taken the form of the development of prejudice-reduction programs and workshops and an intensive effort to develop a multicultural curriculum at all levels of education. A multicultural approach to education stresses educational innovations that challenge the majority culture’s views on historical and social issues and strives for inclusivity and fairness in noting the contributions of all cultures, genders, and races to society.

Historic Prejudice

In the 1960s, with the inception of the civil rights movement, the social psychology research literature began to focus in earnest on the concepts of prejudice and discrimination. In the period of time from 1954 to 1964, conflict, organized protest, civil rights marches, demonstrations, riots and acts of violence, and social injustice brought the social problems to the forefront. Researchers were drawn to investigate the complex phenomena and mechanisms of prejudice and discrimination. In 1964, an expanded Civil Rights Act was passed; this made the research all the more urgent. It has been noted, however, that during this period the broader focus of research on culture and diversity was sacrificed.

The history of prejudice is a long one. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries ushered in a particularly dark period of mass persecution of women who practiced self-healing methods and midwifery. During the medieval period, women had also been victims of religious persecution, including some who simply were homeless or had a “sharp tongue” as well as some who were probably mentally ill. All told, this period of religious persecution, led by religious male patriarchs of the time (mostly representatives of the church), resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being tortured and put to death. A key impulse underlying this massive prejudice and persecution was the Roman Catholic church’s opposition to women’s sexuality. Sexuality was seen to be insatiable in women, and lust in both genders was thought to be dangerous when not firmly controlled. This prejudice was so strong that everything from bad crops to miscarriages was blamed on women identified as witches.

The persecution and death of six million Jewish people by the Nazis is yet another—and probably the most frightening—example of the possible outcomes of extreme prejudice and discrimination. Indeed, any form of genocide is the ultimate end product of severe prejudice.

Impact of Social Movements

The women’s movement (originating in the 1900s), the gay and lesbian liberation movement, the patients’ rights movement, and the civil rights movement have all had major impacts on mitigating the effects of prejudice. As these organized political groups have gained more support, each has been instrumental in consciousness-raising; reducing prejudice, social inequity, and social injustice; and increasing political, educational, and economic opportunity for their members. Affirmative action programs continue, although they have met with criticism that they go beyond the goal of correcting inequity in hiring practices. Some people believe that these policies have led to a social phenomenon referred to as reverse discrimination (the idea that certain methods intended to reduce discrimination, such as hiring quotas, have backfired and actually lead to discrimination against members of a majority group who may be more qualified than others who are hired); however, others believe that certain groups, such as Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans, have suffered long-term damaging effects from discrimination and therefore need the help of affirmative action programs. The language differences between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking children in the United States from a very early age begin to limit the educational and work opportunities for these children’s futures. Bilingual education is one possible avenue to maximize educational opportunities and future economic opportunities.

Social Class and Cultural Distinctions

Social class and cultural distinctions also continue to bring opportunity to some people while eliminating opportunity for those of lower socioeconomic status. Many black children and other minorities have been locked into a cycle of poverty and hopelessness that impairs educational progress and motivation at a very early age. Although some progress has been made with the funding opportunities for offspring of low-income families (such as Head Start programs), designed to pave the way for success in higher education, many programs are cut in times of economic hardship, when people need them the most. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty, with prejudice leading to economic hardship for affected groups. The term “feminization of poverty” has been used to describe the economic impact of low-wage, menial jobs on women in the United States, Puerto Rico, and other nations. Newspapers and television news frequently report acts inspired by prejudice, such as hate crimes against minorities. Violations of the civil rights of minorities still occur, leading to public outcries for examination and correction of the racial inequalities in American institutions and society. Much more progress is clearly needed in studying ways to reduce prejudice and its devastating effects.


Allport, Gordon W. The Nature of Prejudice. 1954. Reprint. Cambridge: Perseus, 2003. Print.

Baron, Robert A., and Donn Byrne. Social Psychology: Understanding Human Interaction. 12th ed. Boston: Allyn, 2009. Print.

Brown, Rupert. Prejudice: Its Social Psychology. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Dixon, John, and Mark Levine. Beyond Prejudice: Extending the Social Psychology of Conflict, Inequality and Social Change. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

Freeman, Howard E., and Norman R. Kurtz, eds. America’s Troubles: A Casebook on Social Conflict. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1973. Print.

Jones, Melinda. Social Psychology of Prejudice. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2002. Print.

Lips, Hilary. Sex and Gender: An Introduction. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw, 2008. Print.

Morgan, Robin. The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism. New York: Pocket, 2001. Print.

Nelson, Todd D., ed. Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination. New York: Psychology, 2009. Print.

Whitley, Bernard E., and Mary E. Kite.The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. 2nd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2010. Print.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. The Anatomy of Prejudices. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.

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