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Prejudice and Discrimination

theories of personality attitude change prejudiced people contact stereotypes

A positive or negative attitude toward an individual based on his or her membership in a religious, racial, ethnic, political, or other group.

Prejudice has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. Based on beliefs, it can affect one's emotions and behavior, sometimes leading to discrimination. Prejudiced beliefs primarily take the form of stereotypes, overall impressions based on the assumption that all members of a group possess similar attributes.

Various theories have been proposed to explain the causes and dynamics of prejudice. In the 1940s, a University of California study on anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice created a profile of a particular personality type—the authoritarian personality—believed to be associated with prejudice. Persons fitting this profile are typically raised by strict, emotionally distant parents who exact rigid adherence to rules and commands. Obedience is ensured through both verbal and physical punishment, and independent thought and action are discouraged. As adults, people fitting this personality type define their world in terms of a social hierarchy, deferring to persons of higher status and acting with hostility and contempt toward those they regard as inferior. They often discriminate against or overtly persecute those whom they perceive to be of lower status. It has also been suggested that they may also be projecting their own weaknesses and fears onto the groups they denigrate. Other traits associated with this personality type include strict obedience to rules and authority, conformity, admiration of powerful figures, and inability to tolerate ambiguity. The California study also found that those who are prejudiced against one group are likely to be prejudiced against other groups as well.

Investigators have also studied prejudice as a pattern of learned attitudes and behaviors. People are not born prejudiced: many prejudices are formed against groups with which a person has never had any contact. They acquire prejudiced views by observing and listening to others, particularly one's parents and other elders. Cultural influences such as movies and television may also create or perpetuate stereotypes. The ways in which women, ethnic groups, and racial minorities are represented in the media and by the entertainment industry have been the target of much discussion and criticism. Cognitive theories have proposed that stereotypes are unavoidable because they help people categorize and make sense of a complex and diverse society.

It is a popular belief that prejudices can be over-come by direct contact between people of different backgrounds. However, social psychologists have noted that contact alone cannot eliminate stereotypes and prejudice—in fact, some types of contact can even reinforce prejudiced beliefs. For change to occur, contact between different groups must meet certain conditions: 1) members of the groups should be of equal status. 2) The interaction should move beyond the confines of ritualized interactions (such as those between employer and employee or customer and salesperson) and into personal acquaintance.

Prejudical attitudes led whites to designate water fountains for "colored" people before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. (The Library of Congress. Reproduced by permission.)

Exposure to persons who dispel or contradict stereo-types about a particular group can also help a prejudiced person to rethink his views. For example, the growing willingness of gays to be open about their sexual orientation has helped dispel the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate. Another important element in overcoming prejudice is the social support of one's community. During the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, the lack of community support for desegregation and school busing further increased prejudiced feelings and behavior among some individuals. Finally, cooperative effort is an effective way of reducing prejudice. Working together toward a common goal can bring different groups of people together.

See also Racism

Further Reading

Adorno, Theodor, et al. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.

Allport, Gordon. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1954.

Terkel, Studs. Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession. New York: New Press, 1992.

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