Prejudice, hostility and hatred

Nobody is entirely free from prejudice. Yet the kind of prejudice we all harbour may seem a world away from the extreme hatred expressed by some. Many of the underlying mechanisms remain the same, however. The human need for identity and belonging, coherence and meaning is an important factor. For learning resources addressing specific prejudices, select the “Racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance” tab.

  • What is prejudice?

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    Prejudice means adopting beliefs about other people based on biased attitudes to the group they are identified with. These attitudes towards others are solely based on the group they are identified with, not on their personal attributes.

    We could say that prejudice lumps an individual in with a group not on the basis of the person’s own perceived group affiliation but according to which group the bearer of the prejudice places the person in.

    We are all predisposed to prejudice

    Prejudice is linked to common processes, to facets of human psychology and to our way of gathering information. This is pointed out in Gordon Allport’s 1954 classic “The Nature of Prejudice”. In other words, prejudice is not something held by some but not by others; rather we are all predisposed to it.

    We are all bearers of prejudice but can mitigate it by constantly challenging it and problematising it.

    Unprejudice is not necessarily the goal, therefore. Rather we should aim for a combination of mitigating our prejudices, constantly challenging and problematising them, and not least working on our proclivity towards prejudice in order to minimise its impact on others.

    Common mechanisms in prejudice formation

    What, then, are these common mechanisms that come into play when prejudice is allowed to form? On the one hand, Allport points to emotional mechanisms linked to our need to belong and to know who we are. At the same time, he is equally concerned with cognitive mechanisms to do with the way we organise and categorise reality.

    “We” and “the others”

    Humans are social beings who define themselves in relation to others. We discover our identities by knowing whom we belong to, whom we are similar to. “I” define myself in relation to a “we” of which I consider myself a member. Social psychology often uses the slightly more neutral term in-group. This group can vary in size from the family group we are conscious of belonging to since early childhood to wider groups such as nations and sometimes even humanity itself. The point in relation to prejudice is the need to define the in-group, “we”, by who they are not, by perceptions of an out-group, “the others”.

    Our notion of “the others” can be negative or hateful, but it does not have to be.

    Our notion of “the others” can be negative or hateful, but it does not have to be. A perception of “the others” as a hostile threat can reinforce solidarity within the “we” group”. It is well known that it is possible to create at least a temporary sense of community within different social groups by urging solidarity against an external enemy. Identity and belonging also exist side by side with positive perceptions of “the others”. For example, it is quite possible to have strong and important family ties without hating all other families.

    “The others” are more homogeneous than “us”

    However, several experiments have identified two ways in which we consider the “we” group to be distinct from “the others”. Firstly, we tend to view the group we identify with more positively than “the others”. Secondly, we view other groups as being more uniform, more homogeneous than our own group. One striking example of the latter is the way in which the word African is used in Norway to describe a person’s identity, while the term European is very rarely used. These are terms in the same category, but from a Norwegian perspective it is easier to spot the diversity that exists amongst Europeans than amongst Africans. The tendency to view other groups as being more homogeneous than our own relates to negative features. If we spot certain negative characteristics in individuals within our own group, it is often easy to point to diversity and variation within the group. The negative traits apply to one or more individuals, not to the group as a whole. In the case of “the others”, on the other hand, it is easy to extrapolate our observations of individuals to the group as a whole.

  • Generalisation, categories and stereotypes

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    In order to understand the world around us, we have to organise it by dividing it into categories and groups. This categorisation is based on generalisation: we notice the similarities between different dogs rather than their differences in order to create the category “dogs”. Such categorisation is a fundamental aspect of scientific thinking, or at least it has been ever since Carl von Linné published his taxonomy of the plant kingdom. In other words, generalisation is not a bad thing as such. Generalising about groups of people is also useful when trying to buy a present for a 3-year-old or looking to increase newspaper circulation, for instance.

    See the individual, not the group

    At the same time, generalisation carries the risk of failing to spot variances and therefore also of overlooking the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

    Generalisation carries the risk of failing to spot variances and overlooking the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

    Teachers are well trained in focusing on individual students rather than their group affiliations. We seek to satisfy the needs and wishes of each and every one of them rather than think that one size fits all. Yet we still generalise, and most of us will probably have found ourselves in situations where we are surprised at the way an individual comes across in contrast to the expectations we had based on generalisation.


    Such encounters with individuals can allow us to adjust our generalised beliefs, to broaden our understanding of the group in question, or to expand our understanding of the diversity that exists within the student population. However, just as often we will maintain our generalised views and instead see the individual we met as the exception. That takes us to the next cognitive mechanism in prejudice formation: stereotyping. A stereotype is a rigid generalisation, i.e. a conviction about a group that does not change or shift in light of fresh facts or encounters with individuals.

    A stereotype is a rigid generalisation, a conviction that does not change in light of new facts.

    Of course, an individual can be an exception from a tendency within a group. As long as we are open to these exceptions, it is not necessarily a bad thing to hold on to our generalised beliefs. It only turns into problematic stigmatisation when our perceptions of the group do not change despite clear evidence that they are wrong.

    Curiosity and critical thinking challenge stereotypes

    The counterweight to our tendency towards stereotyping is curiosity about nuances and misinterpretations, critical thinking, self-reflection and recognition of the fact that every generalisation is a simplification – all of which allow us to make adjustments.

    This is where the emotional mechanisms meet the cognitive mechanisms. Previously we looked at how we define ourselves, our group and whom we belong to by contrasting them with “the others”. This means that adjusting our notion of “the others” also has consequences for how we perceive our own group, and indeed ourselves. Changing our self-image is a far more profound process than correcting a mistake about something insignificant. In other words, stereotypes about others are stubborn because they define ourselves.

    Here is an example:

    Football is an important part of the identity of many young people. Yet for others, their dislike of football provides a basis for solidarity and identity. The true reasons behind their distaste for football are one thing, but they are often borne out by certain perceptions of football players, e.g. that they are vacuous and loutish individuals who are only interested in money. Meeting a football player who turns out to be both thoughtful and kind messes with this perception of footballers, but it also threatens the group’s perception of itself. In fact it threatens the members’ perception of who they are. It would take a great deal, therefore, for them to actually concede that football players are a diverse group.

  • Group-based hostility

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    We use the umbrella term group-based hostility to describe exclusionary attitudes towards various groups, ranging from racism and anti-Semitism to homophobia and prejudice against disabled people. People who are hostile towards one group also tend to be hostile towards other groups.

    Correlations between different forms of intolerance

    The survey “Intolerance, prejudice and discrimination. A European report” was published in 2011. Data from the survey establishes a link between six different forms of intolerance: homophobia, Islamophobia, racism (biological), anti-Semitism, hostility towards immigrants and misogyny. People who score highly in one form of intolerance also accumulate a high average score in the other categories. Although different forms of prejudice accommodate different content, they are still linked. The researchers behind the survey have borrowed the word “syndrome” from the field of medicine to describe this correlation. A syndrome is a group of symptoms that often occur together. Similarly, the researchers believe that group-based hostility is a syndrome because the different specific prejudices often manifest together.

    People who score highly in one form of intolerance also accumulate a high average score in the other categories.

    The survey also found that this syndrome is linked to authoritarian attitudes, a hierarchical view of society and resistance to diversity. In other words, prejudice is closely linked to anti-democratic – or at least undemocratic – attitudes as well as scepticism towards migration and the kind of visible diversity that it entails.

    Offering security as a form of prevention

    Group-based hostility is a category that encompasses anti-democratic and extremist views, but it also includes less extreme exclusionary attitudes. This is interesting when looking at the prevention advice being offered on the back of this research. The recommendations are based on the acknowledgement that the main function of prejudice and group-based intolerance is that it offers identity and solidarity: a distinct notion of a “we” group standing together against the threatening “others”.

    Animosity towards certain groups creates identity and solidarity by excluding others.

    The survey also points to how a feeling of insecurity can be created by genuine factors such as unemployment and economic decline. One fundamental challenge for European societies is therefore to provide security to their people by means other than excluding minorities as a result of group-based hostility.

  • Prejudice, discrimination and power

    Prejudice can be a reason for inequality and uneven distribution of power in society. It legitimises discrimination.

    Widespread ideas about a certain group in society can lead the majority to accept discrimination, i.e. differential treatment based on some form of group affiliation. Obvious examples include the legitimisation in classic race thinking of colonialism and slavery or ideas about gender differences as justification for gender discrimination.

    Changing our attitudes may require us to renounce power, positions and various prejudices.

    The fact that our own prejudices can help sustain inequality and give ourselves privileges can make correcting our prejudices an unattractive prospect. Change may require us to renounce power, positions and various prejudices. For example, rejecting the notion that women are better suited to looking after house and home means that men must make room for women in the workplace.

    Direct and indirect discrimination

    Traditional discrimination of non-Europeans is direct, i.e. different groups are treated differently. However, discrimination can also be indirect in that equal treatment of different groups leads to imbalance because of differences between the respective groups.

    One example is the recruitment criteria in the Norwegian armed forces, which include a minimum height requirement. Since men are taller than women on average, the rules favour men even if the rule as such is the same for everyone.

    Prejudice can cover up discrimination

    Discrimination of non-Europeans and women has traditionally been explicit in that it takes place openly and consciously. Yet discrimination can also be implicit. This means that those who discriminate fail to see that they are doing it and may even not have expressly set out to discriminate. In such cases there may be widespread prejudice in a society that renders differential treatment invisible or difficult to detect.

    Unconscious prejudice can lead to implicit discrimination.

    One example of implicit discrimination is how a job applicant’s name can determine whether or not they are invited to an interview. Surveys carried out in Oslo, Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim have found that job applicants with Pakistani names are 20–25% less likely to get a response from the prospective employer compared with applicants with traditional Norwegian names. This is also true when the applicants have otherwise identical qualifications (Birkelund et al. 2015). Some employers may hold negative views of people with Pakistani-sounding names, but researchers have also identified discrimination by employers who do not harbour such views. This means that their attitudes may be more implicit, i.e. unconscious.

    Discrimination in schools

    Discrimination is now prohibited by law, and the concept of non-discrimination is deeply engrained in the Norwegian education system. Teachers are very conscious not to discriminate on the basis of gender or race. Yet the fact that unwanted discrimination can be the result of unconscious attitudes highlights the need for self-reflection: teachers must ask themselves whether their categorisation and implicit notions of differences – be it between boys and girls or between Europeans and non-Europeans – affect the way they treat individual students.

    Student surveys have shown that students are experiencing discrimination and unfair treatment.

    More students are experiencing discrimination and unfair treatment than bullying. This was revealed by the annual Norwegian Student Survey in the years up until 2012, when questions on discrimination were removed from the survey. The groups who are potentially affected are small, however. For example, 2.4% of students said they were being discriminated against because of a disability. This is likely to represent a large proportion of all disabled students.

    More students feel discriminated against by teachers

    Half of all students who have experienced discrimination or unfair treatment say that it was teachers or other adults at the school who discriminated against them. This stands in stark contrast to teachers’ ideals of equality, but it also emphasises the importance of teachers’ reflecting on their own attitudes and on how they treat their students. Since both attitudes and discrimination can be implicit on the part of the teacher, it is quite possible for students to experience differential treatment even if the teacher is unaware of it.

    School teachers are also representatives of society and therefore hold power. Teachers may well feel powerless in a difficult classroom situation, and there may also be situations where the teacher’s power is challenged in practice. However, the relationship between teacher and student remains fundamentally asymmetrical. The teacher has several formal and practical strategies at their disposal. Students may object to these but cannot impose their will in the same way that the teacher and the school can.

    Self-reflection to prevent discrimination

    The imbalance of power means it is particularly important that teachers reflect on how they view their students and on whether these views can prevent them from understanding the students’ circumstances and stop them from doing their best to engage the students.

    Reflecting on our attitudes and on the way we treat our students can reduce implicit discrimination.

    Every member of society may harbour prejudice of some sort. But prejudice propped up by power is far more potent that prejudice shared by a weak and small group. When power comes into play, prejudice can have consequences for the entire social order and help legitimise discrimination. In order to understand discrimination in society, many people are calling for the perspective to be broadened: from prejudice to concepts such as privilege or racism. As seen here, there is considerable discussion about how to define the term racism. One definition considers racism a social order in which certain prejudices create a discriminatory social structure through the exercising of power, so-called structural racism.

    Knowing that prejudice can cover up correlations, it is important to do some soul-searching, reflect on our own ideas and be open to the fact that they are in fact prejudiced.

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