Understanding Prejudice: Origins, Mental Health Impact, And Ways To Combat Bias & Discrimination

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

No matter who you are or where you live, you likely live among people who don’t share your background. There may even be many years of history that have shaped the relationships between different groups of people in your community or region based on racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds. Living alongside individuals of diverse genders, sexual orientations, beliefs, and political views can significantly shape your worldview.

As a result, there may be instances where you or others make premature judgments about the individuals you meet. These assumptions constitute prejudice and can negatively impact social functioning, mental health, and quality of life. Even benign prejudices or stereotypes can have repercussions, so it may be important to become aware of one’s bias and commit to self-improvement.

This article will discuss how prejudice impacts mental health and social functioning. We will also explore strategies for overcoming prejudice as a victim and perpetrator. Self-awareness and respect for others may deepen your understanding of others and gain a richer understanding of the world.

Overcome prejudice with therapy

Understanding prejudice

Prejudice refers to preconceived ideas about a person or group based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. These ideas can be shaped by culture, society, and media and might be self-reinforced through flawed reasoning. Thinking of prejudice as a faulty mental model for assessing others may be helpful. 

What causes prejudice? 

The human brain creates mental models through pattern recognition that help us reason, predict events, and make decisions. However, these mental models are only sometimes based on objective reality. Our perceptions of the world around us are shaped by our upbringing and experiences and the narratives of the unique histories of where we come from and where we live. 

We may internalize certain narratives about different groups of people, leading to negative preconceptions that can affect our interactions, perpetuate stereotypes, and promote stigmas. Sometimes, you can reinforce those stereotypes through cognitive biases like confirmation bias

For example, if you encounter someone who you perceive to adhere to a particular stereotype, you may feel as if your preconception was “proven.” However, you may not notice the many instances in which the people around you defy stereotypes about the social groups to which they belong. 

Impact of prejudice on mental health

It’s important to remember that no person is immune to prejudice. We all have biases, but identifying and countering these thoughts can be challenging. Preceptions about our social groups can shape how others perceive us, leaving us vulnerable to prejudice. As both a victim and perpetrator, bias can negatively impact relationships, mental health, and social functioning.


Victims of prejudice may be susceptible to several issues related to self-esteem and emotional well-being. Encountering negativity and judgment based on one's identity can erode self-esteem, self-worth and cause stress or anxiety when interacting with others. Discrimination and stigmatization may also lead to feelings of alienation. 

In some cases, people may worry about reinforcing negative stereotypes, a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. Stereotype threat has been linked to performance gaps in academic and professional settings, which may be another source of mental health strain.


Prejudice can make it challenging for individuals to foster an adaptive mindset towards others, as preconceived ideas about others may negatively influence social interactions. When carrying a bias, engaging with other people in good faith may be challenging, leading to awkward or unpleasant social interactions. 


Repeated failures to have productive conversations, foster healthy interpersonal relationships, and build meaningful connections can lead to feelings of isolation. In some cases, a phenomenon known as defensive projection may occur, leading individuals to project their unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or biases onto others. Over time, patterns of inappropriate social behavior may impact one’s reputation, relationships, and well-being. 

Ways to mitigate prejudice and its negative effects


To minimize the impact of prejudice on your relationships, you may first become aware of your biases. Notice when you have reactionary thoughts about another person, and reflect upon whether those thoughts are based upon information about the individual. Based on your perception of others' identities, you may sometimes make assumptions about them.

As you notice your prejudices, try to replace them with more charitable thoughts towards others. Engage your sense of empathy and curiosity for others to help you gain a more nuanced understanding of other people. Often, you can find something positive about how another person interacts with the world around them, which may help you create more adaptive mental models of the world around you.

Education and awareness

Often, prejudices may arise from ignorance. Our mental models are often built on limited information and are often influenced by inaccurate or incomplete historical narratives. It can be helpful to understand the rich history of other cultures or the variations in gender expression and sexual orientation. 

Sometimes, you may be uniquely positioned to help inform others about your background. By forging connections with others, you can help challenge stereotypes and misconceptions that people may have. Consider sharing your story sincerely, recognizing that the other person may not always fully understand how their prejudices affect others.

Empathy and understanding

Empathy towards others may be crucial for overcoming your prejudices and navigating interactions with those who may hold prejudices against you. Rather than seeing people as part of a group, try to understand them as individuals. Remember that their perspectives were shaped by their background and experiences in the same way that yours were. 

Consider approaching social interactions with genuine curiosity about others and the past that shaped them. This curiosity, paired with respect for the individuality of others, may be a powerful tool in combating prejudice as both a victim and perpetrator.

Social and policy changes

In addition to combating prejudice within ourselves, there may be meaningful changes that you can help support at the community level. It may be worth researching how discrimination may have contributed to racial or ethnic disparities where you live and help advocate for meaningful reform. 

Consider acquainting yourself with the customs, beliefs, and policies that govern other cultures and societies. As a result, you may develop a more nuanced understanding of humanity, break down prejudices, and connect more meaningfully with others.

Overcome prejudice with therapy


Therapy may be another tool for combating prejudice and its effects. A therapist can help you understand your biases and learn how to overcome them. You may also explore any negative experiences due to prejudice and discrimination. Rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT) is one type of therapy that may help change your thought and behavior patterns. 

REBT and other cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are effective across several reputable studies. They can help individuals improve emotional, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes, social skills, and quality of life. These types of treatment are typically available through in-person or online therapy.

Online therapy is known to be as effective as in-person sessions. It may be preferable for those looking for a specific type of treatment. Therapy platforms like BetterHelp may allow you to connect with a trained therapist from the comfort of your home and often offer additional services like group therapy or in-platform journaling. 


Prejudice tends to be strongly influenced by a person’s environment and upbringing. It may be reinforced by confirmation bias, lack of education, or social influences and can negatively affect oneself and others. Individuals may experience the damaging effects of the prejudices of others, which may include alienation, stress and anxiety, and even poor academic or professional outcomes due to stereotype threat.

Combating prejudice may involve a combination of self-reflection, increased awareness, and empathy. Social and policy changes can also help combat the impact of discrimination on the societal level. In contrast, CBT and REBT treatment can help individuals adopt a structured approach to self-improvement. To get started with therapy, connect with a therapist on BetterHelp.

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