What's Prejudice? Psychology, Definition, And Examples

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated September 29, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Melinda Santa

Prejudice is an attitude that one has based mostly on opinions and stereotypes rather than facts and evidence. Although prejudice is a noun, and not a verb, prejudiced behavior is often influenced by bias. Once the switch is made from “thought/feeling” to “action,” discrimination has occurred. Psychology definition experts hold that prejudice involves three main things:

  • Negative feelings
  • Stereotyped beliefs
  • A tendency to discriminate against a stereotyped group

Scientific research has determined that prejudice can be an instinct (we will get to this later). It can also be taught and reinforced by others in society. Thankfully, it can also be ‘unlearned.’

Prejudice: Psychology Definition

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

Prejudice: Psychology 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 are considered the same. Although we use the terms interchangeably, there is a subtle difference between the prejudice psychology definition and that of a stereotype.

Stereotypes are over-exaggerations that aren’t always true but have 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.

Prejudice: Psychology Definition Stereotype/Prejudice Examples

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 explains what could be 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 prejudice psychology research study shows that people’s emotions that 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.

  Warmth Competence Seen As Attached Emotions
Seniors, people with disabilities, stay-at-home spouses High Low Low status
Not competitive
Pity, sympathy
Welfare recipients, low income people Low Low Low status Competitive Contempt, anger,

disgust, resentment

Asians, Jewish people, rich people, feminists Low High High status

Competitive

Envy, jealousy
In-group (similar people) and allies High High High 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

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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 prejudice. 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 in fact.

Prejudice Is Learned

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.

The Effects Of Prejudice On Society

Both stereotypes and prejudices are harmful. These beliefs and opinions ignore that every person, regardless of what ‘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.

I’ll share a personal experience.

When I was a freshman in college, I was dating a guy that lived about two hours away from me. One weekend, I drove to see him. He decided to ride back to my town with me because it was raining heavily and I wasn’t a very good driver at the time.

Somehow, the rain got into my headlight and caused the driver’s side bulb to burn out. It wasn’t long before a police officer took notice and stopped us.

The officer (a woman) was very aggressive and commented on the fact that my passenger was of a different race. “You two must be moving drugs,” she said. Within minutes she had drug dogs searching my vehicle, and she ripped my car to shreds. She even took the door paneling off. All the while, she made prejudiced and racist remarks.

In the end, she took me to jail for a speeding ticket that I had proof of payment for. I spent two days in a cell and left with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a court date.

I had never had any negative dealings with police officers up to this point. In fact, I come from a long line of law enforcement workers. My father and mother work at a prison. I was both surprised and hurt by the officer’s insensitive comments. My boyfriend expected them. He was used to dealing with prejudiced people who labeled and stereotyped him only because he was a minority.

They say “all’s well that ends well,” but I’m not so sure in this case. One trip to the DMV sorted out the ticket issue. A ‘computer glitch’ was to blame for the payment not showing up in the system. The court case was dropped and my record was erased.

A few weeks later while driving through the same town, the same officer stopped me. When she approached my window, she asked “are you ready to go back to jail?” She backed off after I showed her my new license, but the damage was already done.

I struggled with PTSD for many years after that experience.

Reducing Prejudice: Psychology Definition In Action

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.

Perhaps you have experienced harmful prejudice in your community. Or maybe you have recently become aware of your own prejudices 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 own home. Read what others have to say about their experience with BetterHelp below.

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