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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.

Extract from Dr Zounish Rafique On Prejudice in Holmes, G (2010) Psychology in the Real World: Community-based groupwork. PCCS Books.[1

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’.

Is prejudice a defence?

In psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms are 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?

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.

Prejudice in childhood

Main article: Prejudice in childhood

See also

References & Bibliography

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.
  • 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



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