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The Psychology of Prejudice

What is Prejudice?

A prejudgement is an unjustified, typically negative opinion and/or attitude towards people based solely on their belonging to a particular social group. These groups could be separated by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Prejudice creates and maintains hierarchical status relations between groups as it constructs feelings of inferiority and superiority in both parties.

Prejudice vs. Discrimination

While prejudice is the forming of opinions or subconscious categorising of individuals, discrimination is when these thoughts are put into action. Discrimination is caused by prejudice, but the same cannot be said the other way around.

Causes of Prejudice

  1. Stereotyping

When assumptions are made about people without close contact or understanding of them, prejudice is produced. According to Allport in The Nature of Prejudice, “The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgement. We cannot possibly avoid this process.” In order to make the world easier for our minds to process, we subconsciously separate ambiguous people, objects and situations into different categories. This is to simplify information that is too overbearing to be thought through rationally; ambiguity is prevented by making generalisations, giving a sense of control over the information.

  1. The Outgroup Homogeneity Bias

An ingroup is a group to which someone belongs, whereas an outgroup is a group they do not. The outgroup homogeneity effect is when an outgroup’s characteristics are more generalised than an ingroup; the individuals in the outgroup are stereotyped to be expendable or interchangeable. This is formed by the absence of understanding and contact with individuals of the outgroups, leading to a shallow impression lacking the backup of actual experience with them. Abstract characteristics are placed instead of individual character traits, creating prejudice.

  1. Social conformity

Peer pressure from a group may lead to one feeling like they need to conform to what is regarded as normal. This is to avoid the discomfort of standing out and being viewed differently due to independent actions.

  1. Bad experiences

Bad experiences with a person from a particular group can also lead to stereotyping as people would then assume everyone from the same group acts the same way - this is done as a defense mechanism to avoid being hurt by the same bad experience. Of course, this is incorrect as not all people from the same group as a bad person are bad, but this is done subconsciously to protect oneself.

Effects of Prejudice

  1. Stereotype threat

Those being prejudiced against might feel trapped or reduced to only the stereotyped characteristics as these are the only things others associate them with. As these stereotypes are ingrained into them, they might be manifested into actions, which leads to poor performance or inability to act to their fullest potential.

  1. Lowered self-esteem

Stereotypes can become labels which make people feel like they’ve been reduced to certain traits, making them no longer seen as individuals with unique characteristics of their own. This overlooking of individuality and labelling may lead to lower self-esteem and self-worth.

  1. Self-sabotage

Due to the potentially lowered self-esteem previously mentioned, those being prejudiced against may use mechanisms to maintain their self-esteem or to keep it from being lowered even more. This is to find or create reason to blame their reduced performance on. For example, a student with family problems might be stereotyped to struggle academically, so they might drink a lot of liquor the night before a test to blame their poor performance on their hangover. This is to avoid blame being put on their own abilities, rather the obstacles in their way, which were created by themselves to begin with.

  1. The scapegoat effect

Prejudice might lead to irrational blaming of a minority for social problems. An extreme example would be the Jews being the scapegoats of Hitler’s followers during World War II, which led to a mass genocide. The blame put on the Jews was caused by hatred and prejudice, causing an unfair loss of innocent lives.

  1. Generating fear within communities

Prejudice leads to discrimination, which actively causes harm to groups of people. Therefore, those being prejudiced against might have to be wary of the intentions of those of different groups, inducing fear and paranoia within them.

Prejudice is a difficult problem to solve as it is deep-rooted in our upbringing and beliefs. However, if we don’t try our best to break them down, it will only form a stronger chain reaction, affecting our later generations negatively, creating unnecessary hatred and conflict.

Ways to Reduce Prejudice

  1. Interact with outgroups

At the end of the day, stereotypes are formed by the lack of knowledge of outgroups, leading to feeling the need of making assumptions to clear any ambiguity. However, wouldn’t this be solved by just reaching out to each other and trying to understand each other more? This way, we can see each other as individuals, eliminating prejudice.

  1. Spread awareness

Debunking stereotypes by reinforcing individuals’ different experiences and character traits can disprove myths surrounding groups, showing outgroups that different people in the same group can vary largely, lessening misunderstanding.


Researcher: Sylvia


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