Prejudice is a term with many connotations. The most common definition of prejudice in the social sciences is an attitude toward members of a given social group that rests on the fact that they are members of that group (e.g., members of a particular race, ethnicity, religion, or gender; individuals of a particular age, economic class, sexual orientation, or disability status). Generally, most researchers consider prejudice to be the emotional component of reactions toward others based on their social category membership. It is also associated with stereotypes—specific ideas about the members of the group—and with discrimination—behavior toward the members of that group. Discrimination can be either overt (e.g., refusing housing or seating on a bus based on race) or subtle (e.g., administering job qualification tests that favor some ethnic groups based on criteria that are not job related). The notion of groups is central to the concept of prejudice; although prejudice can be felt for specific individuals, it is specifically based on their group membership.
The finding that prejudice often leads to discriminatory behaviors makes the study of prejudice a major focus in the social sciences. Indeed, classic research demonstrates that prejudice and behavior are related, although not always reciprocally. Contemporary researchers therefore seek to understand when prejudice influences behavior and when the situation or the personal characteristics of the perceiver override prejudice’s influence.
Several major recent trends have been noted in the research literature. Perhaps the greatest change in the study of prejudice has been a shift in the usual conceptualization of prejudice. Early researchers focused their models on extreme cases of prejudice, with the goal of understanding the “bigot” or prejudiced individual. The underlying model, usually implicit but sometimes explicit, was that prejudice should be considered a pathology, the source of which can be understood and ferreted out. Contemporary researchers, in contrast, suggest that prejudice is a natural—if oftentimes deleterious—by-product of normal patterns of human thinking. Accordingly, the social cognition literature is replete with evidence that human memory systems rely on social categories largely because such organization of information is particularly efficient. For example, individuals often use categorical thinking because they are “cognitive misers.” Upon encountering an individual from a given category, we can “know” quite a bit about him or her simply by accessing the many rich associations (i.e., schemas) we already have with that social category, saving a great deal of time and effort. This approach largely reconceptualizes prejudice from the extraordinary and deviant to the ordinary and normal. A problem arises, however, when a schema about a group is biased, not fully representative (i.e., weighted toward negative information about the group), inaccurate (i.e., based on myths about the group rather than facts), or—perhaps most damagingly—when the perceiver’s schema does not accurately depict a given individual.
The literature on prejudice has changed from an earlier viewpoint that prejudice is volitional. More recent research shows that attitudes toward outgroups can operate unconsciously or outside of a perceiver’s awareness, a result that illuminates the robust finding that reductions in conscious or expressed prejudice do not necessarily coincide with reductions in discrimination. That is, although an individual may resist the expression of prejudice consciously, he or she may harbor unconscious prejudice and consequently behave in discriminatory ways. The scientific study of such “implicit prejudice” is yielding interesting insights into the relationship between implicit and explicit prejudice and the behaviors that each one uniquely predicts.
Other interesting recent work finds that individuals differ in their motivations to respond without prejudice; for example, they may be internally or externally motivated. These differences in turn help explain expressions of prejudice.
The foci of research on prejudice have also evolved. Early researchers primarily studied the prejudice of majority group members toward minority group members, whereas recent work also examines the prejudice of minority group members toward other minority groups and the prejudice of minority group members toward majority group members. Other research examines how the prejudices of majority groups in society affect the targets of those prejudices. A classic and powerful study conducted by Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie P. Clark reported that black children as young as 4 preferred white dolls to dolls that were closer to their own skin color. Influential recent research on stereotype threat and related research on stereotype susceptibility examine how prejudice influences its targets via stereotypes. Other work considers psychological implications and emotional responses of being the target of prejudice, including coping, victimization, stigmatization, and feelings of social exclusion.
An understanding of prejudice is critical for resolving many pressing social problems because prejudice (a) contributes to many social problems and (b) is a consequence of social problems. These cyclical factors make prejudice ubiquitous in society.
Negative prejudice directly contributes to social problems in the form of discrimination. For example, prejudice toward certain groups is associated with discrimination in employment. In one classic study, a cohort of white participants was assigned to interview either a black or a white job applicant. The research revealed that black applicants were treated differently than were white applicants. White interviewers of black applicants kept greater physical distance from black applicants, made more speech errors during the interviews, and ended the interviews sooner. Research demonstrates that prejudice toward groups influences employment decisions, educational disparities across groups (e.g., teachers’ expectations and student achievement), patterns of housing (e.g., residential segregation), political representation and under-representation, and even jury sentencing. Beyond these disturbing consequences, prejudice can motivate hate crimes, police brutality, and personal conflicts. Globally, prejudice played a role in some of the most heinous genocides from the Holocaust to those in Bosnia and Rwanda. Thus, prejudice can fuel both antipathy and active aggression.
Social scientists have shown that prejudice not only contributes to social problems but also results from them. When people witness disparities between groups, such as disparities of poverty and educational achievement, they develop prejudices. For example, system justification theory argues that psychological and ideological motivations lead individuals to justify and preserve the status quo, often via unconscious prejudices and stereotypes. This is an example of a social problem leading to prejudice, because to maintain the existing social order in which the majority group enjoys dominance and privilege, both minority and majority members may experience prejudice against members of the minority group and for the majority group. Indeed, studies show that members of minority ethnic groups actually favor majority ethnic group members, thus perpetuating inequity. Additionally, because people are generally motivated to believe the world is fair and that people “get what they deserve”—the “just world phenomenon”—prejudice becomes an efficient way to justify the status quo. When the status quo includes a host of social problems, such as ethnic or gender stratification in work or education, the result is prejudice.
One can quickly identify a troubling state of affairs—a vicious cycle in which negative prejudice can contribute to social disparities that, in turn, contribute to prejudice. For this reason, negative prejudice is often considered a social problem, and breaking this cycle via prejudice reduction has been a major concern of social scientists and practitioners.
Even as evidence suggests the decline in some countries of certain forms of prejudice, other evidence suggests that more subtle, indirect, and pernicious forms of prejudice have emerged. Further complicating matters, prejudice has a multitude of causes. Characterizing searches for the causes of prejudice are two broad perspectives, one emphasizing individual differences and the other emphasizing intergroup processes. Based on these perspectives, scholars have theorized and demonstrated that many factors can contribute to prejudice, including competition for resources, power, or prestige; economic hardships; social categorization and subsequent social comparison processes; psychological processes; personality characteristics; social stereotypes; socialization influences (e.g., through families, classmates, or the media); and conformity motives. Although reducing such a multicausal problem as prejudice is not simple, programs to reduce prejudice are ubiquitous and can be found in employment organizations, schools, and society more generally, and in both private and public organizations.
One major approach to prejudice reduction is encapsulated in the contact hypothesis, which states that contact between majority and minority group members will decrease prejudice, but only when members of two groups have (a) equal status, (b) shared goals, (c) active cooperation with each other, and (d) the support of authorities. These conditions can be very difficult to fulfill in everyday life. Notably, research and theory on contact played a significant role in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling desegregating schools.
Importantly, a recent meta-analysis (an integrative examination of a variety of studies) found that intergroup contact effectively reduces intergroup prejudice—a finding that generalized across ethnic, racial, and other categories studied. The meta-analysis also found that instances in which the four conditions were met were the most effective in reducing prejudice amid intergroup contact.
Other approaches to reducing prejudice include the conversion model, which hypothesizes that encountering an atypical member of a group will provoke a change in one’s prejudice, and the bookkeeping model, which hypothesizes that exposure to prejudice-contradicting information will gradually lead to the reduction of prejudice. Still other approaches to prejudice reduction focus on social categories. These include decategorization models, which focus on increasing the extent to which individuals are seen as individuals rather than as members of groups, and recategorization theories, which posit that prejudice is reduced to the extent that groups are reconceived so that “we” and “they” are combined into a single “us.” Recategorization may be achieved by creating super-ordinate identities (e.g., “We are all Americans”) or superordinate goals (e.g., “We are all working to preserve the environment”). More recent work emphasizes dual categorization—concurrent emphasis of shared and distinct identities—in order to avoid counterproductive reactions that might be instigated by the emphasis of shared identities at the expense of distinct identities. Still other work focuses on reducing prejudice through cross-categorization, which considers each individual’s multiple group identities, particularly those identities shared by individuals who see each other largely as members of different groups. For instance, a young person prejudiced against an older person (ageism) might experience a reduction in prejudice if reminded that they are both Christian women (and thus share a religious group and a gender group).
A much-discussed and controversial approach to prejudice reduction is blindness, often called color blindness in the case of race and ethnicity. This perspective argues that, if prejudice involves attention and consideration to difference, then policies—and indeed society—should be blind to difference in order to reduce prejudice. Critics of this perspective charge that it paradoxically impedes prejudice reduction by underappreciating the structural barriers that codify prejudice into the structures and forms of our social institutions. They further argue that color-blind approaches impede collective action by groups suffering from prejudice and encourage blindness to difference that can make communities vibrant, interesting, and rich in potential.
Historically, the term prejudice has connoted negative prejudice—negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the members of a group. To achieve tolerance across groups, research has primarily sought to reduce negative prejudice. But what lies beyond tolerance? Recent work on intergroup attitudes answers this question by investigating positive intergroup thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Research on allophilia (from the Greek for “liking or loving the other”) has focused on such attitudes and finds that positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about members of other groups are as central to understanding positive behaviors across group divisions (e.g., proactive support of the “other”) as negative prejudices are to understanding negative ones. This work also suggests that negative prejudice and allophilia have distinct antecedents: what it takes to reduce hating across groups is different from what it takes to increase liking. In sum, this work supports a two-dimensional model of intergroup attitudes in which liking and disliking—allophilia and negative prejudice—are often negatively correlated, but also exhibit significant independence (different antecedents and different outcomes).
Whether the focus is on reducing the negative (e.g., employment discrimination) or on increasing the positive (e.g., increasing an individual’s comfort, kinship, and engagement with those of another group), the prejudice construct has been a vibrant, fertile, and productive area of inquiry for social scientists and a place where science has met practice in service of society.
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