Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Prejudice & Discrimination Theories

Relaunched: 22 November 2020

Prejudice and discrimination blight our world, causing misery to billions and often leading to violence, sometimes in the extreme. Discriminatory violence can range from an attack on an individual to war by one country against another – even to genocide, So it is desperately important to understand how such processes work and what leads to them.

Accordingly it is important to understand the difference between prejudice and discrimination – especially as they are often confused in the popular media.

This is defined by John Dovidio & Samuel Gaertner (2010) as an attitude towards a person based on their perceived group membership. The term is often used to refer to a preconceived, usually unfavourable, evaluation of another person based on that person’s political affiliation, sex, gender, beliefs, values, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race, ethnicity, language, nationality, physical appearance, occupation, education, criminality, sport team affiliation or other personal characteristics. This attitude towards another person may be based on little or no knowledge of them. Eg: someone is considered to be untrustworthy with young children because they are gay.

However, not all prejudice is considered negative. For example, patriotism is often thought to be desirable.

In prejudice there is a cognitive element – the beliefs (schemas) someone has about another person or group of people. When such schemas are shared to become memes, they become stereotypes – often divorced from the reality of the person or group being labelled.  According to John Dovidio, Nancy Evans & Richard Tyler (1986), information relevant to an activated stereotype is processed more quickly than information unrelated to it. (This fits with Jean Piaget’s (1929) concept of assimilation.) When incoming information is inconsistent with the stereotype,  due to confirmation bias it may be refuted or even denied (Chris O’Sullivan & Francis Durso, 1984)

However, there are also affective elements in prejudice: how having those beliefs towards the person or group makes someone feel. Fear? Disgust? Hate? The more intensely an individual feels towards another/others, the harder it is not to act out those feelings – ie: discrimination.

Gordon Allport (1954) holds that prejudice comes from categorical thinking. He claims that prejudice is a natural and normal process for humans. Allport writes: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories… Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.” The process of categorisation lies at the heart of one of  the most important explanations of prejudice and discrimination: Social Identity Theory.

Paul Bloom (2014) supports Allport, arguing that ,while prejudice can be irrational and have terrible consequences, it is natural and often quite rational. This is because prejudices are based on the human tendency to categorise objects and people based on prior experience which forms part of their schema set. This means people make predictions about things in a category based on prior experience with that category, with the resulting predictions usually being accurate (though not always). Bloom argues that this process of categorisation and prediction is necessary for survival and normal interaction.

Henri Tajfel (1982) states there were 3 elements in the development of prejudice:-

  1. Assimilation
    This is learning and absorbing the attitudes and values of the society we live in. If a form of prejudice is a norm in that particular society….
  2.  Search for coherence
    This is our need to understand and make sense of our social world. This can include modifying our attitudes to fit in with those we identify with (peer and reference groups) so that we can be accepted into them.
    Clearly this is conformity driven by the PURPLE vMEME. In its drive to be socially acceptable to belong, PURPLE is carrying out the role of Sigmund Freud’s (1923) concept of the Ego.
  3.  Categorisation
    How we categorise or label others – like/unlike us, friend/enemy, weak/powerful, etc, etc.

Since prejudice is an internal mental attitude, it cannot be legislated against unless it is acted out – ie: prejudice is manifested as disclination. Strategies to shift values and/or reduce fear of others – eg: familiarity and education – can be effective in reducing prejudice.

This can be defined as behaviour based on prejudice – ie: its acting out. Discrimination is usually to the disadvantage of the labelled person(s) on the basis of their belonging to a certain socially undesirable group or social category. However, discrimination may not always have a negative effect against the discriminated person. For example, positive discrimination – when action is taken to enable people who are disadvantaged by prejudice and discrimination to have equal opportunities. In some cases, this may involve giving  them more opportunities – eg: to  counter the effects of sexism, some political parties have a minimum quota  of females they must put forward as candidates for national and local government elections.

Not all discrimination is intended consciously as discrimination. ‘Indirect discrimination’ is when a member of one group is at more of a disadvantage than a member of another group because of a  requirement or restriction such as having to wear a particular uniform at  work. In the past Sikhs have complained of  discrimination because uniforms that required a cap would be a problem because their religion requires them to wear a turban.

There is also the issue of ‘victimisation’ which is when someone is treated less favourably because they complained about discrimination.

Sexism, racism, homophobia, discrimination against disabled people and ageism are some of the most and frequent and regular areas of discrimination – even though such acts are illegal in the UK and many other Western countries and have been for many years:-

Eg: it is illegal to do anything to incite others to racial hatred. This was enshrined in the Race Relations Act (1976.) The Act outlawed direct discrimination, victimisation and indirect discrimination. It covered education, employment and the provision of services and made it unlawful to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origin.

The Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) attempted to tackle sexism.

The Disability Discrimination Act (2005) was the latest in a line of measures aimed at protecting disabled people from being discriminated against.

The Equal Opportunities Act (1974) enabled action in both the civil and criminal courts against perpetrators of such discrimination as racism and sexism.

Most such legislation was consolidated in the Equality Act (2010)

However, legislation only reduces discrimination in any one area; it does not eradicate it. For example:-

  • Racism: a British Government report (Shammit Sagger  & Joanna Drean, 2001) found 64% of Britons feel ‘less positively’ towards ethnic minority groups. One of the ways this plays out is that ethnic minorities tend to have significantly worse health (Gilbert Gee et al, 2006). The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2021 took a disproportionately high toll amongst ethnic minorities in the West. Gareth Iacobacci (2020) is just one commentator who has attributed this in part at least to racism and the poverty and poor health care that often goes with it.
    Educationally black children in the UK tend to do markedly less well than their white counterparts (Steve Strand, 2012). David Gillborn (2008) attributes this in large part to teacher expectations conforming to stereotypes of ethnic minority students – ie: Chinese and Indian students are perceived as bright and promising while blacks – boys especially – are seen as ‘no hopers’. The memetic stereotype has informed the schemas many teachers employ in their expectations of such students.
    When it comes to crime & deviance, racism in the criminal justice system is well documented from the Macpherson Report (1993) on, despite it having been made illegal nearly 2 decades before. Coretta Phillips & Benjamin Bowling (2012) describe policing of minority ethnic communities as “mass stop and search operations, paramilitary tactics, excessive surveillance, armed raids, police violence and deaths in custody, and a failure to respond effectively to racist violence.”
  • Sexism: nearly30 years after the Equal Pay Act Judith Hellerstein, David Neumark & Kenneth Troske (1999) reported that women generally were paid less than men
  • Homophobia: Francesca Hall (2005) reports that 75% gay students suffer homophobic bullying in British secondary schools. She states that the bullying is bad enough for the gay students to truant or fake illness to avoid going to school.
    Audrey Koh & Leslie Ross (2006) compared the  frequency of stress and mental health problems suffered by lesbians, heterosexual and bisexual women. A secondary aim was to see if being ‘out’ affected  rates of stress and mental health problems. 1,304 participants from 33 American health centres were given an anonymous questionnaire with closed questions asking about  sexual  orientation, ‘out’ status and stress and mental health problems. Of the respondents, 637 were heterosexual, 143 bisexual and 524 lesbian. Bisexual and lesbian women reported more stress than heterosexuals. Bisexual women who were out were twice as likely to have an eating disorder as heterosexual women and more than twice as likely to have contemplated  suicide in the previous year.
    Gay men being 6-16 x more likely to commit suicide than straights was just one of the more extreme statistics Canadian sociologist Michel Dorais (2004) quoted in his study to emphasise the effects of stigmatisation on gay men. He conducted in-depth interviews with a sample of 32 Canadian men who had attempted suicide at least once between the ages of 14 and 25. Of the 32, 24 were self-identified gays. The other 8 respondents, who did not see themselves as gay or bisexual, were used for comparison. One of this latter group was seen by others as effeminate and was often treated as if he was gay, even though he was in reality heterosexual. Dorais argues that “it appears that having a homosexual or bisexual orientation in highly homophobic environments adds to many of the reported risks associated with suicide behaviours”(p13). The social reaction to their actual or assumed sexuality, therefore, is the cause of their suicide or attempted suicide. Dorais argues that being a gay or effeminate man is deeply stigmatising and this was an important factor explaining suicide attempts by such men. All of the gay or effeminate men had a negative self- image which was strongly linked to their perceived or actual sexuality. 20 of the 24 gay men said that their suicide attempt or attempts were linked to their sexuality. All but 3 of them said that their suicide attempt involved an inability to accept their sexuality as a result of the attitudes of others. Dorais says, “They experienced non-acceptance of their homosexuality, guilt related to having such desires, and the conviction that they could never be happy as homosexual” (p31).The 8 heterosexuals, who attempted suicide,  also had negative self-images. However, the reasons for this were diverse and included “problems with a partner, previous abuse, family problems, debt problems and overuse of drugs” (p31). No single type of problem had such an impact as being gay.