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What Is Prejudice?

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Definition:

Prejudice is a baseless and usually negative attitude toward members of a group. Common features of prejudice include negative feelings, stereotyped beliefs, and a tendency to discriminate against members of the group. While specific definitions of prejudice given by social scientists often differ, most agree that it involves prejudgments (usually negative) about members of a group.

Types of Prejudice

Prejudice can be based upon a number of factors including sex, race, age, sexual orientations, nationality, socioeconomic status and religion. Some of the most well-known types of prejudice include:

  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Classicism
  • Homophobia
  • Nationalism
  • Religious prejudice
  • Agism

Prejudice and Stereotyping

When prejudice occurs, stereotyping and discrimination may also result. In many cases, prejudices are based upon stereotypes. A stereotype is a simplified assumption about a group based on prior assumptions. Stereotypes can be both positive ("women are warm and nurturing") or negative ("teenagers are lazy"). Stereotypes can lead to faulty beliefs, but they can also result in both prejudice and discrimination.

According to psychologist Gordon Allport, prejudice and stereo types emerge in part as a result of normal human thinking. In order to make sense of the world around us, it is important to sort information into mental categories. "The human mind must think with the aid of categories," Allport explained. "Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it. " This process of categorization applies to the social world as well, as we sort people into mental groups based on factors such as age, sex and race.

However, researchers have found that while when it comes to categorizing information about people, we tend to minimize the differences between people within groups and exaggerate the differences between groups. In one classic experiment, participants were asked to judge the height of people shown in photographs. People in the experiment were also told that:

"In this booklet, the men and women are actually of equal height. We have taken care to match the heights of the men and women pictured. That is, for every woman of a particular height, somewhere in the booklet there is also a man of that same height. Therefore, in order to make as accurate a height judgment as possible, try to judge each photograph as an individual case; do not rely on the person's sex."

In addition to these instructions, a $50 cash prize was offered to whoever made the most accurate judgments of height. Despite this, participants consistently rated the men as being a few inches taller than the women. Because of their prejudgment that men are taller than women, the participants were unable to dismiss their existing categorical beliefs about men and women in order to judge the heights accurately.

Researchers have also found that people tend to view members of outside groups as being more homogenous than members of their own group, a phenomenon referred to as the out-group homogeneity bias. This perception that all member of an out-group are alike holds true of all groups, whether based on race, nationality, religion, age or other naturally occurring group affiliation.

Ways to Reduce Prejudice

In addition to looking at the reasons why prejudice occurs, researchers have also explored different ways that prejudice can be reduced or even eliminated. Training people to become more empathetic to members of other groups is one method that has shown considerable success. By imaging themselves in the same situation, people are able to think about how they would react and gain a greater understanding of other people's actions.

Other techniques that are used to reduce prejudice include:

  • Passing laws and regulations that require fair and equal treatment for all groups of people.

  • Gaining public support and awareness for anti-prejudice social norms.

  • Making people aware of the inconsistencies in their own beliefs.

  • Increased contact with members of other social groups.

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References

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Fiske, S. T. (2000). Interdependence reduces prejudice and stereotyping. In S. Oskamp (Ed.), Reducing prejudice and discrimination (pp. 115-135). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Nelson, T. E., Biernat, M. R., & Manis, M. (1990). Everyday base rates (sex stereotypes): Potent and resilient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 664-675.

Linville, P. W. (1998). The heterogeneity of homogeneity. In J. M. Darley & J. Cooper (Eds), Attribution and social interaction: The legacy of Edward E. Jones (pp. 423-462). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Plous, S. (2003). The psychology of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination: An overview. In S. Plous (Ed.), Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination (pp. 3-48). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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