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.