How People Develop Prejudices

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What Is Prejudice?

Prejudice is an often negative preconception or attitude toward members of a group. It can have a strong influence on how people behave and interact with others—particularly with those who are different in some regard—even if on an unconscious level.

Common features of prejudice include having negative feelings and holding stereotyped beliefs about members of the group, as well as a tendency to discriminate against them. In society, we often see prejudices based on characteristics like race, sex, religion, culture, and more.

When people hold prejudicial attitudes toward others, they tend to view everyone with the defining characteristic as being "all the same." They paint every individual who holds specific characteristics or beliefs with a very broad brush and fail to look at each person as a unique individual.

Prejudice vs. Discrimination

Sometimes, prejudice is confused with discrimination. While prejudice involves having negative attitudes toward members of a certain group, discrimination occurs when those feelings are acted upon.

Types of Prejudice

There are numerous types of prejudice, some of which include:

  • Ageism, such as believing that someone is "too old" or "too young" to work in a particular role or participate in a specific activity
  • Classism, which may include having a negative belief about someone based on their income or looking down on someone because they are "poor" or a member of the working class
  • Homophobia, often defined as feeling a sense of discomfort, fear, distrust, or hatred for people who are members of the LGBTQ+ community and do not identify as heterosexual
  • Nationalism, which involves believing that the interests of your state's group are more important than those of other groups
  • Racism, which involves having a negative attitude toward members of a certain racial or ethnic group rooted in systems of power and oppression
  • Religious prejudice, which involves feeling negatively toward someone because of their religious beliefs, practices, or ideologies
  • Sexism, which involves holding certain stereotypes or beliefs about someone based on their sex or gender, such as feeling as if they can't (or can) do something based on this factor
  • Xenophobia, which involves disliking or fearing someone who the person considers "foreign" or "strange," often in the context of their native country

Causes of Prejudice

How is it that we can become prejudiced? There are a few potential causes to consider.

Stereotypes

In many cases, prejudices are based on stereotypes (and stereotypes are based on prejudices). A stereotype is a simplified assumption about a group based on prior experiences or beliefs.

A gender stereotype might be that only little girls can wear dresses or only little boys can play with trucks. Examples of racial stereotypes include "Black people are good at basketball," "White people can't dance," or "Asians are good at math."

According to an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, prejudice comes from people who aren't comfortable with ambiguity being prone to make generalizations about others. These generalizations reduce the ambiguity while also allowing for quicker, often harmful decisions.

Categorizing

We are inundated with too much information to sort through all of it in a logical, methodical, and rational fashion. So, we often depend upon our ability to place people, ideas, and objects into different categories in order to make the world simpler and easier to understand.

Psychologist Gordon Allport believed that to make sense of the world around us, it's important to sort information into mental categories. "The human mind must think with the aid of categories," Allport explained in his book, "The Nature of Prejudice." "Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it."

Being able to quickly categorize information allows us to interact and react quickly, but it also leads to mistakes. For example, we tend to minimize the differences among people within certain groups and exaggerate the differences between groups. This is referred to as social categorization.

Prejudgments

In one classic experiment, participants were asked to judge the height of people shown in photographs. They were told that for every woman of a particular height, there was a man of the same height. Therefore, they were not to rely on the person's sex to determine the height.

Despite being offered a $50 cash prize for whoever made the most accurate judgments, participants consistently rated the men as being a few inches taller than the women. Because of their prejudgment that men are taller, the participants were unable to dismiss their existing categorical beliefs and judge the heights accurately.

Outgroup Homogeneity Bias

People tend to view members of outside groups as being more homogenous than members of their own group. This phenomenon is referred to as the outgroup homogeneity bias.

This perception that all members of an outgroup are alike holds whether the group is based on race, nationality, religion, age, or another group affiliation.

Historical Events

Sometimes prejudice develops in response to historical events. An example of this is holding negative beliefs against all Muslims as a result of the attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. This is known as Islamaphobia and still impacts Muslim Americans today.

Family, Friends, and Social Groups

A 2018 study involving children between the ages of 3 and 9 found that if the parents held even a subtle ethnic prejudice, this predicted whether their kids held an implicit prejudice, regardless of parenting style. This suggests that the beliefs of parental figures can influence if a prejudice develops.

Another 2018 study found similar results, but with friends versus family. This one involved 1,009 teens who were either 13 or 16 years of age and found that the attitude of their peers affected the participants' level of individual prejudice.

Impact of Prejudice

When prejudice exists, it can affect people and societies in many different ways.

Poorer Health

Studies have connected the presence of prejudice with poorer physical health, both directly and indirectly. Examples of direct impacts are living in an unhealthy environment and limited access to health resources as a result of prejudice. Indirect impacts include prejudice-related stress and altered health behaviors.

Other pieces of research have linked perceived prejudice with reduced mental health, both in terms of ethnic identity and even feelings of hope. Being part of a group that experiences real or perceived prejudices can impact health both physically and mentally.

Increased Discrimination

Stereotypes not only lead to faulty beliefs, but they can also result in discrimination. They can impact the ability of the person being discriminated against when trying to get a job, secure housing, and more. It may even result in violence.

Studies indicate that discrimination can also negatively impact health. This is because someone who is discriminated against may have poorer living conditions, a lack of access to quality healthcare, and increased stress levels.

Research has even found that discrimination can affect the health of the person's partner, increasing their risk of depression and putting greater strain on the relationship.

Harassment is a form of discrimination often occurring in the workplace. A 2018 survey found that 59% of women and 27% of men had experienced sexual harassment at work. Other forms of harassment resulting from prejudice include harassment related to characteristics such as race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and religion.

Reduced Multiculturalism and Segregation

We live in a world where people can often move around fairly freely. According to one study, the level that people identify with their native country impacts their level of prejudice against people wishing to immigrate to their country.

If there is a high level of prejudice against a certain immigrant group, immigration policy is likely to reflect those prejudices potentially making it harder for members of that group to immigrate. Prejudice and discrimination can also lead to segregation.

How to Reduce Prejudice

In addition to looking at the reasons why prejudice occurs, researchers have also explored different ways that it can be reduced or even eliminated. Training people to have more empathy for members of other groups is one method that has shown considerable success.

By imagining 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 can be used to reduce prejudice include:

  • Gaining public support and awareness for anti-prejudice social norms
  • Increasing contact with members of other social groups
  • Making people aware of the inconsistencies in their own beliefs
  • Passing laws and regulations that require fair and equal treatment for all people
17 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.