What Is Prejudice?

Updated April 14, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Biased attitudes are typically based mostly on opinions and stereotypes rather than facts and evidence. Although bias and related words are nouns and not verbs, biased behaviors are often influenced by negative opinions and stereotypes. Once switches are made from “thought/feeling” to “action,” discrimination may be occurring. Psychology definition experts hold that biased-related behavior involves three main things:
Is Unlearning Prejudice Possible?
  • Negative feelings
  • Stereotyped beliefs
  • A tendency to discriminate against a stereotyped group
Scientific research has determined that bias can be an instinct. It can also be taught and reinforced by others in society. Thankfully, it can also be unlearned.

Prejudice Defined

The word prejudice is of Latin origin. The prefix ‘pre’ means ‘before,’ while ‘judice’ stems from the same root as ‘judged.’ Although we usually link prejudice with negative feelings and prejudiced behavior like bigotry or racism, there many other types of social bias, including:

  • Sexism: stereotyping based on gender.
  • Religious prejudice: disliking a person/group solely based on their religious beliefs.
  • Ageism: bias based on one’s age.
  • Classism: prejudice against those of a certain social class.
  • Homophobia: stereotyping people based on their LGBTQ+ sexual preference
  • Xenophobia: prejudice against those from other countries.

Sometimes prejudice is outright and ‘in your face.’ Other times, prejudiced behavior is more subtle.

Prejudice Definition Vs. Stereotype Definition

When exhibiting prejudice, people tend to paint everyone in a group with the same brush. In other words, everyone who fits in a specific category is considered the same. Although we use the terms interchangeably, there is a subtle difference between the prejudice psychology definition and that of a stereotype.

A stereotype is an over-exaggeration that isn’t always true but has some merit based on experience. Stereotypes can be positive (for example, most people assume that all Asians are good at math). Prejudices, on the other hand, are almost always negative and aren’t based on reason or experience. They often are supported by a belief that certain people or groups have lesser worth or abilities.

Examples Of Prejudiced Statements Include:

  • Because Ben is Jewish, he’s greedy with money.
  • Lee should be put on the math team instead of Darius because Asians are smarter than W
  • Hosea’s probably here illegally; he should be sent back to wherever he came from.
  • Because Latonya is Black, she can play basketball but can’t swim.
  • Donna is much too old to be hired as a bartender; she wouldn’t make as many sales as the younger women.
  • Abdul is from Africa, so he probably grew up in a poor, remote area.
  • Because Mr. Jones is gay, he shouldn’t be allowed to teach young children.
The problem with prejudiced and stereotypical statements like those listed above is that they almost always lead to discrimination. For example, a teacher who believes that Asian children are always good at math might not notice a Chinese student struggling in her class. A coach who holds the prejudiced belief that Black people can’t swim might not recruit African American children because they assume they wouldn’t want to compete. A hiring manager looking to find great substitute teachers for a school might miss out on a fantastic employee by wrongly assuming that being homosexual is associated with being a pedophile. Because prejudice usually turns to action, it is imperative that we identify the source and work to get rid of it when at all possible.

Where Does Prejudice Stem From?

Much research has been done about prejudice and why certain people are prone to this type of negative thinking. Below we will discuss several theories and research that explain how this is going on when prejudiced thoughts are at work. You’ll find that, while all are different, many have bits and pieces that overlap.

The Natural Theory

Although it is easy to categorize those who express prejudice as ‘bad,’ this judgment isn’t fair according to prejudice psychology. Definition aside, experts such as Gordon Allport chalk prejudice and stereotyping up to normal human thinking.

In his work, The Nature of Prejudice, Allport explains that, as early as five years old, we realize that we are a part of certain groups. These groups (i.e., gender, race, religion) are not of our choosing at this point, but are assigned to us. We also assume that the groups we are in are good. After all, we are a part of them.

Until we are a little older (age nine or so), we won’t be able to compare ourselves to other groups on a conscious level, but we will have already developed loyalty to our categories by then. We have also judged others and put them in boxes as well. This is the way our brains make sense of things.

Warmth and Competence: A Fiske Study

Other prejudiced psychology research study shows that people’s emotions are attached to prejudice and discrimination and not necessarily stereotypes. The American Psychological Association (APA) covered one such study conducted by Princeton University’s Susan Fiske, Ph.D. The APA holds that Fiske:

…and her colleagues have also found evidence that emotional prejudices of pity, envy, disgust, and pride exist across cultures and, through neuroimaging studies, that these four emotions may activate distinct parts of the brain. During the study, people were asked to rate certain groups based on two characteristics: warmth and competence. A chart of the responses can be found below.

WarmthCompetenceSeen AsAttached Emotions
Seniors, people with disabilities, stay-at-home spousesHighLowLow status
Not competitive
Pity, sympathy
Welfare recipients, low income peopleLowLowLow status CompetitiveContempt, anger,

disgust, resentment

Asians, Jewish people, rich people, feministsLowHighHigh status

Competitive

Envy, jealousy
In-group (similar people) and alliesHighHighHigh status
Not competitive
Pride, admiration
As you can see, the people who took part in the research had loyal attachments and positive attitudes toward those they were similar to. This lends itself to Allport’s theory in a sense. However, the prejudices they held weren’t necessarily linked to a certain stereotype. Instead, they were tied to emotions that they felt about a particular group.

Prejudice And Personality

Some psychology experts believe that personality has a great deal to do with biases and negative feelings toward others that we would consider to be prejudiced. Psychology definition and research experts say that those with authoritarian personality types are more likely to struggle with prejudice than others. Common traits of authoritarians include:

  • Strive for conformity, especially in a society
  • Rigid beliefs/traditional values
  • Total/extreme respect of authority
  • Do not tolerate weakness in themselves/others
  • Admires likeminded people/doesn’t trust outsiders
  • Destructive/cynical
  • Tend to blame and scapegoat others

These personality traits, when added together, make a person much more likely to hold prejudiced notions and discriminate against those who are different from them for no reason based on fact.

Although all of the factors and theories above surely play a role in prejudiced attitudes, most biased beliefs are actively spread through society. Remember Gordon Allport, the psychology definition guru, we discussed earlier? His finding supported the ‘learned’ theory as well, citing that children learn prejudice in one of two ways:

  • Adopting the prejudice of their parents/family members
  • By being raised in an environment that makes them suspicious or fearful. (Later, these fears are projected onto minority groups.)

This isn’t a simple process. Research has found that it takes the entire childhood period to ‘master’ prejudice and solidify these negative and harmful opinions. This means there is some hope for children who are being raised in prejudiced environments, but only if alternative viewpoints are offered before these biases take hold.

Prejudice Effects

Stereotypes are harmful. These beliefs and opinions ignore that every person, regardless of the ‘categories’ they fall into, has abilities, strengths, weaknesses, and goals that have little to do with anyone else. In certain situations, stereotypes can be confirmed in individual instances. For example, some girls are bad at math. However, this doesn’t mean we can use the prejudiced nature behind these labels to negatively judge girls in general.

Prejudice and discrimination eat away at our society, making those who are unfairly targeted feel devalued and defenseless. They might also experience shame and sadness as a result of being mistreated. Many people who seek health from a mental health professional do so because of unfair prejudices held by others that affect them personally. It is doubtful that we will ever eradicate prejudice from the world, especially if Allport is right and some ‘inner-circle’ beliefs are natural. However, we can work to stop discrimination by:
  • Looking at our internal prejudices and combatting them with cold hard facts.
  • Educating others about the prejudice psychology definition discussed here, especially younger generations in which the roots aren’t yet ‘deep.’
  • Making laws that support equal rights and punish those who discriminate or harm others due to prejudice.
Finally, we can encourage those who have been deeply affected by societal prejudice to seek mental help services. Sometimes all a person needs is someone else to stand up with them and say “I support you.”
If you believe that prejudice is affecting your life in one way or another, it can be useful to seek help from a mental health professional. If therapists are not readily available in your area, you don’t need to worry. Therapy is now more accessible than ever with online counseling. You’ll find that psychologists have already developed a rich academic knowledge base involving both those who experience prejudice and those who exhibit prejudice. Treatment is available online in both cases. Researchers are increasingly finding that online therapy replicates the success and satisfaction delivered by in-person treatment.
Is Unlearning Prejudice Possible?

Perhaps you have experienced harmful prejudice in your community. Or maybe you have recently become aware of your own prejudice and want to correct them. In either case, an online therapist from BetterHelp can help you address your concerns. BetterHelp licensed professionals are available to get in touch and administer treatment whenever is convenient for you. You can access this support from the comfort of your home. Read thoughts that others have to say about their experience with BetterHelp below.

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