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Prejudice is an unfair, intolerant, or unfavorable attitude toward a group of people. Prejudicial beliefs are virtually negative stereotypes. Social scientists view prejudice as the possession of negative attitudes targeted against members of a particular religious, racial, ethnic, social, and/or political group. These attitudes give rise to negative or unfavorable evaluations of individuals seen as belonging to that group. The perception that one belongs to a certain group is the precipitating factor in prejudicial feelings—not the actual attributes or behaviors of the person being judged. Like attitudes in general, prejudice has three components: beliefs, feelings, and "behavioral tendencies."

On the most extreme level, the behavioral component can lead to violence—in its most severe form, genocide. Possibly the most infamous example in Western culture is the Holocaust. Colonialism was based, in part, on a lack of tolerance of cultures different than that of the mother country and the development of stereotypes regarding people living in such different cultures.

Stereotyping can be useful, saving time when faced with a situation demanding quick responses. In such instances it may be helpful for human survival: we do not always have time to form a legitimate view about a potential foe before adopting a defensive stance. Also, positive stereotypes lead one to be interested and welcoming toward a new person or situation, in this case of mutual benefit. On the other hand, negative stereotypes can lead to instant and unwarranted rejection of others. Given that people suffer insecurity and fear in their lives, the appearance of another who differs in recognizable ways that have been associated with unpleasantness in the past is often sufficient to produce rejection and even hostile reactions. Only when people live in harmony and peace, secure in the knowledge that all other people are part of the same human family and intend them no ill, will stereotyping cease to lead to negative prejudices and behavior.


Did you know?
Prejudice is a prejudgment based on membership in a group

Prejudice is defined as interpersonal hostility that is directed against individuals based on their membership in another group.[1] In its original usage, the word prejudice referred to a "prejudgmental racial statement of ill doing," or a radical evaluation or decision made before the facts of a case could be properly determined and weighed.[1] This usage was subsequently broadened to include any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence.[2]

As an attitude, prejudice is seen as having a tripartite nature, as possessing cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. A person's beliefs and expectations regarding a particular group constitute the cognitive component of the prejudicial attitude.

Sociologists have termed prejudice an adaptive behavior. Biased views might be considered necessary at times for human survival: we do not always have time to form a legitimate view about a potential foe before adopting a defensive stance that could save our lives. Conversely, prejudice is non-adaptive when it interferes with survival or well-being.

Prejudices are usually based on general stereotypical conceptions of our everyday reality, including ourselves, other persons, objects processes, facts, value-norms, rules. However, they need to be converted into attitudes, in order to be considered as prejudice. And they usually carry a negative connotation.

The word stereotype was invented by Firmin Didot in the world of printing; it was originally a duplicate impression of an original typographical element, used for printing instead of the original. American journalist Walter Lippmann coined the metaphor, calling a stereotype a "picture in our heads" saying "Whether right or wrong, … imagination is shaped by the pictures seen… Consequently, they lead to stereotypes that are hard to shake."[3] The first reference to "stereotype," in its modern, English use was in 1850, in the noun, meaning "image perpetuated without change".[4]

In ethology, "stereotyped behavior" or "fixed action pattern" is an innate, pre-programed response that is repeated when an animal is exposed to an environmental innate releasing mechanism.

Stereotyping can also be created by the mass media, showing an incorrect judgment of a culture or place. Common stereotypes include a variety of allegations about groups based on gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, disability, profession, sexual orientation, social class, race, religious belief, physical appearance, and size.

The terms prejudice and stereotype are often confused and used interchangeably. However they are distinct:

  • Prejudices are abstract-general preconceptions or abstract-general attitudes towards any type of situation object or person.
  • Stereotypes are generalizations of existing characteristics. These reduce complexity.

Forms of stereotypes and prejudice

Stereotypes are ideas held by a particular group about members of other particular groups, based primarily on membership in that group. They may be positive or negative, and may be used to justify certain discriminatory behaviors. Some people consider all stereotypes to be negative. Stereotypes are rarely completely accurate, since they are based on some kernel of truth, or may even be completely fabricated.

Different disciplines give different accounts of how stereotypes develop: Psychologists focus on how experience with groups, patterns of communication about the groups, and intergroup conflict. Sociologists focus on the relations among groups and position of different groups in a social structure. Psychoanalytically-oriented humanists have argued that stereotypes, by definition, are never accurate representations, but a projection of an individual's fears onto others, regardless of the reality of others. Although stereotypes are rarely entirely accurate, statistical studies have shown that in some cases stereotypes do represent measurable facts.

Prejudice generally refers to existing biases toward the members of such groups, often based on "social stereotypes"; and at its most extreme, results in groups being denied life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or, conversely, unfairly showing unwarranted favor towards others.

Types of prejudice

John E. Farley classified prejudice into three categories.[5]

  1. Cognitive Prejudice refers to what people believe is true. An example of cognitive prejudice might be found, for example, adherence to a particular metaphysical or methodological philosophy to the exclusion of other philosophies that may offer a more complete theoretical explanation.
  2. Affective Prejudice refers to what people like and dislike. An example of affective prejudice might be found, for example, in attitudes toward members of particular classes such as race, ethnicity, national origin, or creed.
  3. Conative prejudice refers to how people are inclined to behave. It is regarded as an attitude because people don't actually act on their feelings. An example of conative prejudice might be found in expressions of what one would do if, hypothetically, the opportunity presented itself.

These three types of prejudice are correlated, but all need not be present in a particular individual. Someone, for example, might believe a particular group possesses low levels of intelligence, but harbor no ill feelings toward that group. On the other hand, one might not like a group because of intense competition for jobs, but still recognize no inherent differences between groups.

Stereotypes can be negative or positive, even for the same group. For example, Black men are generally supposed to be good musicians and basketball players, but at the same time seen as aggressive, prone to lives of crime, and likely to be on drugs.

The effects of stereotypes can have positive and negative effects: Students who were implicitly made aware of their gender behaved as the stereotype suggested. Asian-American women performed better in math tests when being aware of being Asian, and did worse when being reminded of being women.[6]

Attitudes formed under high elaboration are stronger (more predictive of behavior and information processing, more stable over time, more resistant to persuasion) than those formed under low elaboration. Variables can serve multiple roles in a persuasive setting depending on other contextual factors. Under high elaboration, a given variable (such as source expertise) can either serve as an argument ("If Einstein agrees with the theory of relativity, then this is a strong reason for me to as well") or as a biasing factor ("If an expert agrees with this position it is probably good, so let me see what else agrees with this conclusion"). Under conditions of low elaboration, a given variable can act as a cue (such as through the use of an “experts are always right” heuristic – note that while this is similar to the case presented above, this is a simple shortcut, and does not require the careful thought as in the Einstein example).

Under conditions of moderate elaboration, a given variable can serve to direct the extent of information processing ("Well, if an expert agrees with this position, I should really listen to what s/he has to say"). Interestingly, when a variable affects elaboration, this can increase or decrease persuasion, depending on the strength of the arguments presented. If the arguments are strong, enhancing elaboration will enhance persuasion. If the arguments are weak, however, more thought will undermine persuasion.

Variables can serve the additional role of affecting the extent to which a person has confidence in, and thus trusts, their own thoughts in response to a message. Keeping with our source expertise example, a person may feel that "if an expert presented this information, it is probably correct, and thus I can trust that my reactions to it are informative with respect to my attitude." Note that this role, because of its metacognitive nature, only occurs under conditions that promote high elaboration.

Components of prejudice

Individuals that have a prejudice against specific groups will tend to experience intense negative feelings when they come into contact with these groups, either directly or indirectly. The affective component of the prejudicial attitude comes into play with profound negative emotional feelings tending to accompany cognitive reactions to objects of prejudice.

The behavioral component of prejudice has engendered the most research interest. Here the concern is the tendency of prejudiced individuals to act in a negative manner toward targets of their prejudice. When such tendencies become manifest in overt behavior, "discrimination" is said to occur, such as in racial discrimination. Numerous constraints upon behavior that may be operating in everyday situations may prevent existing prejudicial feelings from being transformed into discriminatory behavior. If such obstacles are not present in a given instance, however, the prejudicial thought or tendency can find expression in the behavioral act, which may vary in intensity from the lowest level, mere social avoidance, to acts of extreme violence, or even genocide.

Reliance on stereotypes can lead to erroneous thinking about other people. When a prejudiced white employer interviews an African American, for example, the employer attribute to the job candidate all the traits associated with the employer’s African American stereotype. Qualities of the candidate that do not match the stereotype are likely to be ignored or quickly forgotten. The employer whose stereotype includes the belief that African Americans are lazy may belittle the candidate’s hard-earned college degree by thinking, "I never heard of that college. It must be an easy school."

This thinking, which is similar to the "fundamental attribution error," is known as the "ultimate attribution error." The error refers to the tendency for a person with stereotyped beliefs about a particular group of people to make internal attributions for their shortcomings and external attributions for their successes. In the example, the employer is making an "external attribution" (an easy school) for the college success of the African American job seeker. The other side of the ultimate attribution error is to make "internal attributions" for the failure of people who belong to groups we dislike. For instance, many white Americans believe that lower average incomes among black Americans as compared with white Americans are due to lack of ability or low motivation.

Prejudice and discrimination

In literature as well as in newspapers, "prejudice" and "discrimination" are often used interchangeably, as synonyms. This is not correct. Prejudice is an attitude, whereas discrimination is a behavior. Discrimination is an unfair act or series of acts taken toward an entire group of people or individual members of that group, often on the basis of prejudicial attitude.

Prejudiced people may fall victim to errors in the processing and recall of information regarding the objects of their negative feeling: Such individuals will, over time come to think of their "targets" in a certain way, and effectively will filter out or ignore information inconsistent with or contrary to what they have come to believe about those targets.

Stereotypes are seen by many as undesirable beliefs imposed to justify the acts of discrimination and oppression. It is suggested that education and/or familiarization can change these incorrect beliefs.

Reasons for prejudice

Fallacious extension of one's negative past experiences to the general case can be harmful; it can be termed bias. If a person has developed the concept that members of one group have certain characteristics because of a unpleasant past acquaintance with a member of that group, she may presume that all members of the group have such characteristics.

In other cases, prejudice may be a matter of early education: children taught that certain attitudes are the "correct" ones may form opinions without weighing the evidence on both sides of a given question with no malice intended on the child's part. An adult might even be shocked to hear racial slurs or comments and their own opinions on various groups echoed back at them from their children. In the United States of America, Australia, and Europe in particular, it is considered taboo by some people for persons to publicly express their prejudices against another race or group of people; this view has been bolstered by a degree of legal framework and policy within many large organizations. However such taboos do not exist endemically outside the public sphere, and numerous monocultures regard alleged slurs as normal everyday language. This mismatch between an establishment view and a folk view of taboos related to "prejudice" is connected to a frequently reported perception of political correctness restricting the organic expression of views within society, and concomitant backlash against such restriction of free speech.

Stereotypes in arts and literature

In literature and art, stereotypes are clichéd or predictable characters or situations. For example, the stereotypical "devil" is a red, impish character with horns, bifurcated tail, and a trident, whilst the stereotypical "salesman" is a slickly-dressed, fast-talking individual who cannot usually be trusted. Throughout history, storytellers have drawn from stereotypical characters and situations, in order to quickly connect the audience with new tales. Sometimes such stereotypes can be very complex and sophisticated, such as Shakespeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Arguably a stereotype that becomes complex and sophisticated ceases to be a stereotype per se by its unique characterization. Thus while Shylock remains politically unstable in being a stereotypical Jew, the subject of prejudicial derision in Shakespeare's era, his many other detailed features raise him above a simple stereotype and into a unique character, worthy of modern performance. Simply because a feature of a character can be categorized as being typical does not make the entire character a stereotype.

In Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, the heroine forms a strong opinion of a man's character before she hears his side of the story. The balance of the facts, when finally made known to her, challenges and ultimately overturns this prejudice. Prejudice is also a theme in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a man is wrongly tried and convicted because of his race.

The Italian commedia Dell'arte was known for its stock characters and stock situations, which could be considered drama stereotypes. Retrospectively these stock characters have been illuminated by the work of Brecht, Dario Fo and Jacques Lecoq. Importantly in drama the actor does not create a stereotype rather their characterization may be simple in that they represent an uncritical reflection of the stereotype. A subtle and detailed characterization, especially of the commedia Dell'arte stock characters, results in a unique and immediate performance that will be enjoyed by an audience due to the clear active use of the characters by the actor.

The instantly recognizable nature of stereotypes mean that they are very useful in producing effective advertising and situation comedy. Media stereotypes change and evolve over time - for instance, we now instantly recognize only a few of the stereotyped characters shown to us in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. In addition to stereotyping people, stereotyping occurs of institutions. Television stereotypes of high schools have often promoted a "typical American school" as football games, fashion styles, romantic and sexual behavior, and not much devotion to academics or studying.


  1. 1.0 1.1 J. Levin and W. Levin, The Functions Of Discrimination and Prejudice, 2nd Ed. (Harper & Row, 1981).
  2. Ralph L. Rosnow, "Poultry and Prejudice," Psychology Today (March, 1972): 53.
  3. Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewen, Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality. (Seven Stories Press, 2006. ISBN 1583227350), 3-10.
  4. Stereotype Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 30, 2007.
  5. John E. Farley, Majority - Minority Relations. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004), 18-19
  6. The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview"Consequences of Stereotyping." December 30, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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External links

All links retrieved November 30, 2022.


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