How Do Psychologists Attempt To Explain The


Origins Of Prejudice? Essay, Research Paper



Ethnocentrism is the tendency to assume that one’s culture or way of life is superior to all others.

Prejudice is a negative attitude toward an entire category of individuals.

Discrimination is behaviour that excludes all members of a group from certain rights, opportunities or privileges.

A range of international events have recently focused attention on the issue of prejudice; increasing ethno-nationalistic tensions in former Eastern block countries, racial conflict in the Middle East, Africa and intergroup conflict related to “ race debates “ in Europe, The U.S.A and Australia. Psychology is the only discipline, which over the past century has consistently and systematically investigated the issue of prejudice and race.

Social psychology has a long tradition of empirical and theoretical research in this field and currently there are many social psychologists in Australia engaged in significant and timely research. This is no accident given the regions long and chequered history regarding race relations with the treatment of the Australian Aborigines has been likened to genocide.

Currently there are a number of theoretical and conceptual psychological approaches, which both define and explain prejudice. Personality theories primarily locate race and prejudice within the intro-psychic domain of the individual. From this perspective, authoritarian-rearing practices, intolerance and intro psychic defence mechanisms are isolated as casual agents to a significant problem. There are several theories as to why people are prejudiced. The exploitation theory keeps a racial group in a subordinate social position. The scapegoating theory says that prejudice people believe that they are society’s victims. In this sense, exploiters abuse others and scapegoats feel they are being abused.

Dr. Vance Locke and Dr. Lucy Johnston at the University of Canterbury have recently published papers on the issues of social cognition and stereotyping . Personality approaches have been challenged by the dominance of social cognitive perspectives. These view prejudice as inevitable consequences of normal and functional cognitive processes such as categorisation and stereotyping. Our limited cognitive capacities, it is argued, make the simplification and generalisation of social information necessarily adaptive, so that a group’s tendency to view outgroup members as “ all alike “ is not surprising. Cognitive mechanisms are thus viewed as the essential foundations to stereotyping and prejudice.

Martha Augoustinos and Katherine J Reynolds of the Australian National University have said that since the 1920’s, when prejudice emerged as a construct of significant interest to psychologists, there have been several distinct stages of theoretical and empirical development, i.e. white superiority and minority backwardness, human irrational and faulty cognitive processes, unconscious psychological defences, individual personality structures and expressions of group interests and intergroup relations .

The psychodynamic approach which Freud spawned many psychodynamic theories of human personality. The main one lies in the view that early childhood experiences crucially affect an individual’s later personality. This was taken by Adorno et al (1950) and more recent the non-pyschodynamic derivatives of authoritarianism. Adorno et al argues that the authoritarian personality has its origins in childhood. Where parents adopt an excessively harsh and disciplinarian regime in order to enforce on their children emotional dependence and obedience, children develop a love/hate relationship with their parents. This conflict between love and hate is stressful and there is a need to resolve it. The hatred is repressed through fear and guilt and finds its outlet through displacement on to those who are weaker, while the power and the authority of the parents is idealised and generalised to all authority figures. This theory rested upon Adorno et al original work.

The most dominate theoretical and empirical approach to prejudice is social cognition (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Social cognitive research suggests that outgroups discrimination and prejudice stem from basic and functional cognitive processes such as categorisation and stereotyping. It is argued that our limited cognitive capacities makes the simplification and generalisation of social information necessarily adaptive, so a group’s tendency to stereotype out group members and to perceive them as homogeneous is an inevitable by-product of our cognitive hard-wiring.

While cognitive models of prejudice are currently dominant, researchers are emphasising the role that affects plays in prejudice. To some extent this derives from the frustration – aggression theory of the 1930’s and 1940’s which argued that inner hostilities were displaced onto innocent outgroups and minorities.

The development of prejudice in young children is where much of the social cognitive developmental literature has been found that children demonstrate clear ethnic and racial preferences at around 3 or 4 years old (Aboud, 1988). These preferences tend to be consistent with the differential values associated with different social groups i.e. North American children between 3 and 5 express negative attitudes towards minority groups such as Afro – Americans and Native Americans. However after the age of 7, this attitude does decline.

The socio-cognitive models have advanced to account for these developmental findings in young children. We should involve children in lots of role-play i.e. for them to act out at being ogres, elves and to come to the defence of short people like gnomes and halflings. Instead of playing the norm as per usual. They should be allowed to experience different forms of role-play i.e. boys playing with dolls, buggies, girls playing with woodwork and cars.

Children are born without prejudice. Prejudice is caught and taught that is why the parent’s attitude is the heart of the matter. We should remember children are always listening, provide experiences for the children to look, speak or worship differently, so they can learn from it, answer questions in regard to skin, disability, gender, age, religion and teach children to be sympathetic and understanding and compassionate, (K PITZER, 1988).

Many models view attitude change as an information problem and dependent on individual cognitive processing, i.e. the Elaboration Likelihood Model emphasises the role of attention demands in attitude change and argues that more effortful processing is necessary for long term attitude change.

Prejudice based on social identity theory and self-categorisation theory (refereed to as the social identity perspective) is a central feature in the perspective of the discontinuity hypothesis. This asserts that there is a psychological discontinuity between people acting as individuals and people acting as group members (Asch, 1952; Sherif, 1967; Tafjel & Turner, 1979). Self-categorisation can occur as an individual in contrast to other members (personal identity) or as a member of a social category in contrast to other categories (social identity).

It is usual to consider prejudice to be an attitude towards a particular set of people, objects or events. Allport (1958) has said that attitudes have three components; cognitive which amounts to a set of beliefs about the object of prejudice, affective which are feelings or emotions related to the person or object in question and cognitive which are intentions to behave in a particular way towards the person or object.

Devine (1989) has shown that the primary difference between prejudiced and unprejudiced people may rest in the way in which unprejudiced people are able to inhibit or to disregard negative stereotypical beliefs. In Devine’s model of prejudice (Devine, 1989) they are broken up into two stages; the unconscious stage, where identification triggers the existing stereotype and the consciously controlled stage, where a nonprejudiced person may inhibit prejudiced beliefs to prevent a prejudiced response, while a prejudiced person will allow these beliefs to be transferred into responses.

Allport (1958) identified six approaches or emphases to the theories of prejudice. They are the historical or economic approach, the sociocultural , the situational , and the approach via personality dynamics and structure, phenomenological approach and the approach via stimulus object.

The emphasis of theory and research into trying to understand and reduce prejudice must pay less attention to the given issue of prejudice. However, our knowledge of areas such as individual personality, cognitive processes is fundamental to developing effective interventions aimed at moderating prejudice. John Duckitt of the University of Auckland has integrated this knowledge into a multi-level approach to the reduction of prejudice. It is based on three casual processes; individual – differences in susceptibility, exposure to certain social influences and social structure and intergroup relations. For each level various interventions which have been used or proposed in order to reduce prejudice will be described and evaluated e.g. antidiscrimmination laws, anti-racism media campaigns, education, racism awareness training and counselling.