Social Psychology – Understanding Prejudice

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

Prejudice is typically defined as an unwarranted judgment made on the basis of preconceived notions about the group membership of an individual, which is made without consideration for particular facts [1, 4]. Although a mouthful, this definition covers the most important facets of what prejudice involves. That is, it suggests that people can make judgments about someone without actually attending to facts (about the person), but on the basis of what social group(s) the person belongs to (like their gender, ethnic background, social status or even school they attend) [2].

Although Prejudice is usually understood as a negative evaluation, it is not necessarily so. People can hold positive but prejudiced views just as easily [1]. But these are not often emphasized since they are rarely a reason for visible discrimination or stigma, as is the case with negative views. Groups that are known to be on the receiving end of prejudice – both negative and positive – include racial minorities (like people of African or Asian origin), women, gay men and lesbians, people with physical or mental disabilities and asylum seekers [2].


Prejudice seems to be a by-product of a normal cognitive process called Categorization that helps us make sense of the world around us [2]. Every day, the human mind is bombarded with a slew of information about a vast number of items. It becomes necessary for the mind to then try and make sense of all this information – a near impossible task. Thus, the mind tries to simplify this process by creating categories that have basic and generalized descriptions (stereotypes) [3, 4]. Once this is done, information can rapidly be classified as per the category or categories that it belongs to [2]. For example, when at a party, we tend to categorize people based on who they are friends with, what they are wearing, their gender, and other groups. People also categorize themselves, and tend to identify with others who share their categories [2]. So if an individual sees herself as an Asian female who works in academia, she may feel closer to other persons who are Asian, Female or of Academic orientation. While this method helps in interpreting information rapidly, it leads to generalizations about people or things that we have very little information about.

Prejudice arises when value labels of good and bad are applied to generalized categories. Thus, when people form an ‘in-group’ of people they find similar, and an ‘out-group’ that comprises of all others, they are likely to believe the in-group to be better than the out-group [3, 4]. People are also more likely to accept individual differences between in-group members, but paint all out-group members in the same color [2]. The processes of categorization and of generalization occur without conscious effort; and can assert themselves in the most inconsequential of situations [4].  Most research in prejudice has found that people are more likely to be prejudiced when they view another as belonging to an out-group.

There are a number of reasons why a bias against the out-group exists. For one, when resources are limited, the out-group is perceived as competition that poses a threat to the individual and similar others [2]. Also, the dissimilar out-group can be considered a threat to one’s attitudes, culture, language and other aspects by which we identify ourselves. People also learn to be prejudiced from significant others, the media or from social authorities [2, 3]. Researched evidence shows that children (and even adults) tend to pick up prejudices from their parents; but it is possible to pick up a prejudiced attitude from a partner, family member or friend.

Types of Prejudice

Prejudice is expressed in a number of ways. The most visible one – that receives a maximum of attention from news agencies and the media is Aggressive prejudice [3]. This is an explicit demonstration of anger and animosity that may even be accompanied by violence. Typical examples of aggressive violence include Racial and ethnic violence like that faced by marginalized and minority groups in different parts of the world [2]. A less publicized but far more widespread type of prejudice is Banal Prejudice, which involves having less extreme negative attitudes towards a particular group [3]. Banal prejudice can cause an individual to ignore or avoid the group that they are prejudiced against, or to express animosity towards them through passive means like social interaction. People holding such views may not consider themselves prejudiced, and may even provide justifications for their views. Sometimes they may vent about their views to sympathetic ears [1], and experience Cathartic Prejudice.

A rather less understood type of prejudice actually involves holding positive or sympathetic attitudes towards a particular out-group. This Benevolent prejudice can consist of feeling bad for a marginalized group and its members [3], as well as expressing supposedly positive views about them [1]. This description may seem contrary to the notion of prejudice till one considers that while positive, these views are still used to create an image of a homogenous out-group. The individual does not understand the out-groups needs and experiences, but ‘accepts’ them nevertheless. The aged, disabled and other ‘deserving’ marginalized groups usually experience this manner of prejudice [1]. People may even express Unintentional Prejudice, where they do not realize that they are being prejudiced [3].

Reducing its Impact

Psychologists, sociologists and policy makers tend to be very concerned about the ill-effects of prejudice on society. Thus, they are constantly trying to reduce its incidence in a given community. The most effective methods involve the ‘Contact Hypothesis’ that suggests that when people interact with members of an out-group; they are more likely to develop positive opinions about them [2]. A more recent understanding of this phenomenon revels that nominal contact may actually strengthen stereotypes; and it is necessary that the contact is meaningful and valuable to both parties for it to reduce prejudice. Increased sensitivity and understanding of the experiences of out-group members can also reduce the use of stereotypes as particular details start to become available [2]. Thus, working or studying alongside someone from an out-group, sharing significant experiences and getting to know them as individuals may help counter a prejudiced attitude over time.


  1. Anderson, Kristin. Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
  2. McKinlay, Andrew & McVittie, Chris. “Prejudice”. In Social Psychology and Discourse. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Pp. 133-152.
  3. Valentine, Gill & McDonald, Ian. Understanding Prejudice: Attitudes Towards Minorities. London: Stonewall, 2004. Retrieved from
  4. Plous, Scott. The Psychology of Prejudice. Understanding, 2011.Web. Retrieved from