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Prejudice and Stereotypes


  • Prejudice and Group Thinking

Prejudices are attitudes toward other people based on preconceived notions about the group they are identified with. They are attitudes toward individuals solely based on the group they are associated with, not due to personal qualities.

Prejudices lock individuals into a group.

In this way, we can say that prejudices lock individuals into a group, not based on the person's own experience of group affiliation but rather on which group the bearer of the prejudices places them in.

Everyone has a tendency towards prejudice

Prejudices are linked to general processes, to characteristics of our human psychology and our way of acquiring knowledge. This was something Gordon Allport pointed out in his classic "The Nature of Prejudice" from 1954. Prejudices are not something some people have, and others are exempt from; instead, we all have a tendency towards prejudice. Prejudices are normal.

Prejudices are normal.

The goal need not be a prejudice-free state. Instead, it should be a combination of reducing prejudices, a constant challenge and problematization of our prejudices, and, most importantly, a way to handle our inclination towards prejudices so that other people are affected as little as possible.

So, what are the general mechanisms involved in prejudice production? Allport pointed to emotional mechanisms linked to our need to belong and know who we are. At the same time, he placed equal emphasis on cognitive mechanisms, linked to our way of organizing and categorizing reality.

‘Us’ and ‘Them’

Humans are social beings who define themselves in relation to others. We find our identity by knowing to whom we belong, to whom we are similar. "I" define myself in relation to a "we" that I see myself as a part of. This is the basic idea in Tajfel and Turner's social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979).

In social psychology, the slightly more neutral term 'ingroup' is often used. This group can vary in scope, from the family group that we are aware of belonging to from childhood to broad groups like a nation and even humanity itself. The point, regarding prejudices, is the need to define the ingroup, "us," through whom they are not, through ideas about an outgroup, "them."

Conceptions of "them" can be negative or hateful but need not be.

Conceptions of ‘them’ can be negative or hateful but need not be (Brewer 1999). An understanding of ‘them’ as a hostile threat can strengthen unity in the ‘us group’; it is a known fact that it is possible to create at least temporary unity between different societal groups by invoking solidarity against an external enemy. However, identity and belonging also exist with positive conceptions of ‘them.’ It is entirely possible to have strong and important family ties without hating all other families.

Social identity theory is based on two ways we evaluate the group we identify with as different from ‘them.’ Firstly, we tend to evaluate the group we identify with more positively than ‘them,’ known as ingroup favoritism or bias. Secondly, we perceive other groups as more similar, more homogeneous than our own group (outgroup homogenization). A striking example of the latter is how the term 'African' can be used in Norway to describe a person's identity, while the term 'European' is rarely used. They are concepts at the same level, but from Norway, it is easier to see the diversity among Europeans than among Africans.

The tendency to see other groups as more alike than one’s own group applies to negative traits. If we observe certain negative traits in individuals belonging to our own group, it is often easy to point out diversity and variation within the group. It applies to one or more individuals, not the group as a whole. For ‘them,’ however, it is easy to infer from observations of individuals to perceptions of the group as a whole.

Categorization is part of scientific thinking

To understand the world around us, we need to organize it by dividing it into categories and groups. The basis of categorization is generalization – we focus on the similarities between different dogs rather than the differences to form the category of dogs.

This division is a fundamental part of scientific thinking, at least since Carl von Linne launched his classification of the plant kingdom. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with generalizations per se. Generalizations about groups of people are also useful when buying gifts for a 3-year-old or trying to sell as many newspapers as possible.

Generalization carries the potential to overlook variation and lose sight of the individual’s uniqueness.


The challenge arises when generalizations turn into stereotypes. A stereotype is a fixed generalization, meaning an idea about a group that does not change or adjust in light of new facts or encounters with people.

A stereotype is a fixed generalization, an idea that does not change in light of new facts.

There is actually a possibility that an individual may be an exception to a tendency in a group. As long as we are open to meeting such exceptions, it may not be negative to retain generalized ideas. Stigmatization becomes problematic when ideas about the group do not change despite clear examples that they are wrong.

The countermeasure to the human tendency to stereotype is curiosity about nuances and misinterpretations, critical thinking, and self-reflection.

Emotional mechanisms make prejudices difficult to change

This is where the emotional mechanisms in prejudice production meet the cognitive ones. We saw earlier how we define ourselves, our own group, and to whom we belong through the contrast to 'them.' This means that a change in the image of 'them' also has consequences for our image of our own group, yes, of ourselves. And a change in self-image is a much heavier process than correcting a mistake about something that does not matter. In other words, stereotypes about others are persistent because they define who we are.

Stereotypes about others are persistent because they define who we are.

An example: Football is crucial to the identity of many young people. However, for some, their aversion to football is the starting point for community and identity. The actual reasons for such aversion are one thing, but these are often supported by certain notions about football players, such as that they are simple and somewhat rowdy individuals solely concerned with money. Meeting a football player who is actually reflective and friendly disrupts the perception of football players but also threatens the group's perception of itself, indeed, it challenges the members' conception of who they are. Therefore, it takes a lot for them to actually admit that football players constitute a diverse group.


Allport, Gordon W. (1979). The nature of prejudice. Unabridged, 25th anniversary utg. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co

Brewer, M.B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: ingroup love and outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55 (3), pp. 429-444

Dovidio, John. F., Glick, P. S. & Rudman, L. A. (2005). On the nature of prejudice: fifty years after Allport. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Lenz, Claudia (2010). Konstruksjon av den andre – teoretiske og historiske perspektiver. Christhard Hoffmann, Øivind Kopperud (red.): Forestillinger om jøder – aspekter ved konstruksjonen av en minoritet. Oslo: unipub.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of inter-group conflict. I W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Red.), The social psychology of inter-group relations (ss. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.