Notes on Prejudice
  • “A “prejudice” is an attitude, generally negative, towards a social outgroup, and thus towards members of that group purely on the basis of their membership of that group.” 
  • There is a cognitive element to prejudice, that is, a set of beliefs about members of the outgroup shared by the ingroup and which influences perception once someone is categorised as being a member of that outgroup. 
  • The prejudice may be expressed by behaviour, in which case it become “discrimination”. 
  • Discrimination can take the form of dehumanisation.  If the outgroup can be viewed as less than human, then atrocities committed against the outgroup seem much less serious. 

Prejudice has several purposes.  It can be used to exploit or exert control over members of the outgroup, such as when women are perceived as being less effective than men in leadership positions so that they are not promoted.  Secondly, it encourages members of the ingroup to perceive each other more favourably than members of the outgroup. 

There are two forces at play.  The need to belong (to an ingroup) and the need to be different (from the outgroup). 

“Group membership as social identity furnishes people with a definition and evaluation of who they are; what they should believe, feel and do; and how they should interact with people.  People like a clear sense of social identity and so they try to differentiate their group as distinctively as possible from relevant outgroups.  They also tend to do this in ways which favour their own group over the outgroup because ingroup favouritism is self-favouritism.” (p527) 

Unfortunately prejudice is everywhere and shows no signs of going away.  History shows that those who suffer at the hands of an ingroup, tend to create their own outgroup to oppress and against which to define themselves.  Competition tends towards the development of ingroups and outgroups. 

Self esteem is at the root of prejudice.  If one’s self esteem is dampened, then it can be rectified by concentrating on the perceived inferiority of an outgroup: 

“…groups which have lower social status in a particular society strive to improve their social identity and thus members’ self esteem.  If group members believe that they can easily identify with the higher status group, then they do so as individuals.  If, on the other hand, they feel that this is not possible then, as a group, they strive to improve the social evaluation of their group in quite creative ways, for example by trying to distract attention away from negative qualities.  If a group feels that its inferior status is unfair and illegitimate then it can become very well organised and assertive in trying to change its objective status and thus the evaluation of its social identity.” (p527) 

People may think that members of their ingroup are more homogeneous than the outgroup.  Studies have shown that not only do members of an ingroup rate other members more favourably, but they also perceive members to be more similar to each other than members of the outgroup were to each other. 

Where people are encouraged to reflect on their biases, prejudice falls away.  The “contact hypothesis” is that if people of one race could just get to know one another, then prejudice would disappear.  It has been shown, however, that such contact has to be for “prolonged equal-status, meaningful interaction that is pleasant and capable of changing stereotypes of entire groups not just attitudes towards the individuals with whom one interacts.” (p528)  Contact which falls short of this rarely changes stereotypes and may have the opposite effect of further entrenching stereotypes. 

There is also a risk in the ingroup identifying too closely with the outgroup and thus losing its distinctive quality: aggressive conflicts may resurface as each group seeks to define itself again.  Mutual positive differentiation” is a possible, relatively happy outcome of contact.  Here the ingroup may recognise the positive features of other groups while preserving a sense of ingroup distinctiveness.  

Fortunately the ingroup does not even have to have direct contact with the outgroup for prejudice to reduce.  The “extended contact effect” suggests that intergroup behaviours can improve if members of the ingroup have knowledge of friendships between another attractive group and the outgroup. 

We are capable of belonging to several ingroups at the same time, of having multiple identities, of being British and English, or American and Greek.  Any one of our identities may be “switched on” depending on our present situation, and the label that is switched on will switch on an outgroup at the same time.  When we are abroad, we feel our nationality more keenly.  When we are surrounded by those of the opposite gender, our own gender label comes to the fore. Miles Hewstone, Professor of Social Psychology at Oxford University, who has researched group interaction for twenty years, says: 

“The identity of difference becomes salient at different times.  For example, when we go abroad we become much more aware of our Britishness.  It’s fine to build up a British identity, but it’s not salient enough to be the panacea that the politicians currently hope that it will be.  But they’re right that you have to build super-ordinate identities – those that bridge, but still allow subordinate identities, for example, Brummie or Geordie.”  (The Guardian, 5/9/2007, Society, p5)  

From Carlson, Buskist and Martin, Psychology, The Science of Behaviour  and Hogg and Vaughan, Social Psychology.