Prejudice and Stereotyping Research Paper

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Social scientists approach the study of stereotyping and prejudice from two vantage points. One perspective focuses on general theories about the processes that lead to biased attitudes and behaviors; the other examines how these processes differ depending on which social group is the target of prejudice. Because beliefs and attitudes about different groups are covered in the Human Diversity section of this book, in this research-paper we focus on general theories of prejudice and discrimination. We highlight the most important theories, issues, and questions that students of stereotyping and prejudice should understand. Most theories discussed in this research-paper focus on race, but some work examines gender-associated attitudes and beliefs, anti-gay prejudice, and ageism. Because space limitations do not allow us to adequately examine research about particular social groups, we encourage you to review the other chapters in this text that address human diversity. We invite you to consult Whitley and Kite (2006) for comprehensive reviews of all topics covered in this research-paper.

Our focus is primarily on social psychological research and theory, although some of the topics also are addressed by other social science disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology. Some topics, such as research methods, are covered in many social science courses. For example, you might recognize other theories, such as categorization or right wing authoritarianism, from other psychology courses. In all cases, our discussion centers on the unique importance of these theories to the study of stereotyping and prejudice.

Stereotypes are beliefs and opinions about the characteristics, attributions, and behaviors of various groups. Stereotypes can be both negative and positive. Some stereotypes are accurate and some inaccurate, but many contain a “kernel of truth”—that is, they are based, to some extent, on perceivers’ observations about their social world. Stereotypes can be descriptive, cataloging the characteristics associated with a social group, but they can also be prescriptive—perceivers regularly use stereotypes to define what social group members should be like.

Prejudice is an attitude directed toward people simply because they are members of a specific social group. Like stereotypes, these attitudes can be either positive or negative. Typically, however, researchers are most interested in negative attitudes and the influence those attitudes have on how social group members are treated. In general, prejudice is more strongly linked to treatment of others than are stereotypic beliefs. When people are treated differently from others based primarily on membership in a social group, they have been discriminated against (Jones, 1997). Discrimination can occur at the interpersonal level, as when one individual’s actions result in unfair treatment of another because of social category membership such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Discrimination also can be sanctioned by institutions or governing bodies, which occurs when overt practices, such as laws, give one group advantages over another. Finally, discrimination can result when one group retains the power to define cultural values or the form those values take. This cultural discrimination allows powerful groups to maintain their dominance and control by rewarding the values that correspond to their view and punishing those that do not.

We encourage you to study the history of prejudice and discrimination, both as a social issue and as a topic of social science research. Students sometimes find their knowledge is quite limited, and so they will benefit from learning about both our national history and scientific racism. The former can be examined through research on institutional and cultural discrimination. Major rulings of the Supreme Court provide one vehicle for discussion of both historical and current social climates. Students, for example, may be unaware that interracial marriage could be legally prohibited in the United States until the Court ruled otherwise in the 1960. Today, interracial marriage is both more common and more socially accepted. Students also can consider how parallel trends related to same-sex marriage or civil unions are related to contemporary stereotyping and prejudice.

Jones (1997) provides an excellent review of the history of scientific racism and how racist beliefs influenced both the questions social scientists ask and the interpretation of the research resulting from those questions. For example, early researchers set out to show that certain social groups were ‘backward’ and that white and/or male domination of those social groups was therefore appropriate and even desirable. On a more positive note, historical events such as the Nazi Holocaust and the black civil rights movement in the United States led to theories about the link between social structures and prejudice, with researchers exploring how changes to these structures can have positive social consequences. As you reflect on your own attitudes and beliefs, it is worthwhile to consider how far others (including researchers) have progressed.

Every subdiscipline offers unique challenges to the learner, and the psychology of stereotyping and prejudice is no exception. As is true whenever social issues are presented alongside psychological theory, students of stereotyping and prejudice need to be prepared for their emotional reactions to the material. This affect can stem from personal beliefs and experiences and from the possibility that others will see their actions and words as biased against other social groups. Strong emotional reactions are particularly likely for certain topics, and they also are likely to differ depending on the students’ background, personal characteristics, and experiences. It is not uncommon, for example, for white students to have strong reactions to the topic of white privilege (Johnson, 2006), an unearned favored state that one receives simply because of one’s race. In the United States, whites’ privileged status results in their having advantages that members of other racial groups do not enjoy. One reason whites have difficulty with this concept is that people, in general, prefer to believe their success is based on ability, efforts, or past success. Similarly, some students who believe homosexuality is a sin tend to react negatively to discussions of sexual orientation. As students of stereotyping and prejudice, it is imperative that you consider your personal beliefs and experiences and how they might influence your understanding of the topic. It is particularly important to keep in mind that the study of stereotyping and prejudice is, like other areas of psychological inquiry, an empirical discipline driven by theory-based research. A theoretical perspective is not wrong simply because it contradicts an individual’s personal beliefs. We turn now to discussion of the psychological theories of stereotyping and prejudice, beginning with a summary of the research methods used to test hypotheses based on these theories.

Research Methods

Self-report measures, which directly ask people about their views of members of other groups, are the most common approach to assessing prejudice. For example, a survey item might ask people to agree or disagree with a statement such as “African Americans are less intelligent than white Americans are.” The problem with questions like this one is that because such blatantly prejudiced attitudes are no longer acceptable in modern society, people would be reluctant to say they agreed with the statement even if they actually did so to avoid giving a bad impression.

One approach to solving this problem has been to develop self-report measures that use more subtle items. For example, an item might read “Prejudice is no longer a problem in the United States,” based on the presumption that prejudiced people are more likely to deny the existence of prejudice than are nonprejudiced people. Another approach, the bogus pipeline, asks people about their attitudes while they are monitored by what they think is a lie detector. This approach elicits more prejudiced attitudes than do simple questionnaires but has the disadvantage of misleading research participants about the effectiveness of the lie detector.

A different approach has been to observe people’s behavior without their being aware that their behavior is of interest to the researchers. The presumption of this approach is that if people do not know their behavior is being assessed, they are less likely to try to manipulate it to avoid making a bad impression. For example, researchers might ask a white research participant to sit in a waiting room in which a black person is already sitting and unobtrusively measure how close the white person sits to the black person. A problem with this approach is that behavior does not always accurately reflect attitudes.

A newer approach is the assessment of implicit attitudes, those attitudes of which people are not consciously aware (Fazio & Olson, 2003). There are several techniques for measuring this type of attitude, and research has shown such measures to be promising alternatives to self-report measures. However, because this approach is relatively new, research to identify its full potential is still ongoing.

Social Categorization And Stereotypes

It is widely accepted that all people stereotype and that doing do is simply part of normal human information processing. Understanding this process is key, and doing so requires examining both stereotype content, or the specific characteristics associated with a social group, and the process by which people form, use, and maintain social categories. People often categorize at the basic level, using categories for which there is a wealth of readily accessible information. Age, race, and gender are examples of basic categories. But judgments do not necessarily stop there; perceivers use subtypes of basic categories based on trait and role information. Doing so results in more fine-grained judgments about the characteristics of social group members and the behaviors they are likely to exhibit.

When processing social information, perceivers consider whether the social group member is “one of us” or “one of them,” readily creating in-groups and out-groups. Doing so strongly influences perception—those individuals classified as out-group members are seen as quite similar to one another and thus are treated stereotypically (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). In contrast, those people classified as in-group members are seen as very different from one another and are treated as individuals.

This stereotypic processing relies on schemas, or cognitive structures that contain knowledge and beliefs about a particular social group. Sources of this content include parents, peers, and the media. According to social learning theory, social information is acquired both directly and indirectly, and this learning process begins in childhood (Bandura, 1986). Direct teaching about prejudice is relatively uncommon, but when it does occur, it takes the form of explicit, often bigoted, instruction, such as when whites caution their children that non-whites should be avoided. Most teaching about prejudice happens indirectly, such as when children are encouraged to read certain books and to avoid others, but specific reasons for doing so are not stated. Children also imitate the attitudes and actions of others. In all cases, attitudes and behaviors that are rewarded, either directly or indirectly, are likely to be internalized. Actions and beliefs that are punished or otherwise discouraged tend to be eschewed.

Children become implicitly aware of social categories before they begin to produce words. Infants as young as five months old can discriminate pictures on the basis of age and gender (Fagan & Singer, 1979). Differentiation between attractive and unattractive faces can occur as early as two months. Developmental psychologists also study children’s explicit awareness of social categories, which occurs for most children between the ages of two and three (Yee & Brown, 1994). By this age, children exhibit category preference, but doing so may not mean they are biased either for or against particular group members.

Answering the question of whether children are prejudiced is complex, and researchers face a variety of methodological issues that limit their ability to draw firm conclusions about when and why children show bias against social groups. Different methods can produce different results, in part because it is difficult to assess children’s attitudes accurately. The methodological limitations are similar to those discussed in the section of this chapter on research methods. Despite these limitations, research suggests that, for both black and white children, both positive and negative racial attitudes are in place around age three (Katz & Kofkin, 1997). Racial prejudice in whites is at its highest around age four or five and begins to decline around age seven (Aboud, 1995). The racial preferences of black children are more complex and depend on a variety of factors, including the child’s black self-identification.

Once stereotypes are in place, perceiver biases operate that favor preservation, rather than change, of those stereotypes. People notice stereotype-inconsistent information more readily than stereotype-consistent information, but doing so does not always lead to better memory for the unexpected. Studies of the factors that influence the recall of social information demonstrate that people are better at remembering stereotype-consistent information when they have strong expectations about what others are like, when they are engaged in complex judgment, when they are asked to recall traits rather than behaviors, and when their goal is to remember specific information (see Stangor & McMillan, 1992).

People’s quest for stereotype-confirming information can also affect the course of social interactions: what perceivers expect to see drives both their verbal and nonverbal behavior toward another person. The other person, in turn, readily responds to those initial expectations by behaving in ways that confirm the perceivers’ initial expectations (Klein & Snyder, 2003). Stereotypes, then, can become self-fulfilling prophecies: believing makes it so. Finally, the very language we use can facilitate stereotype maintenance. Research on the linguistic intergroup bias shows that people are more likely to use abstract language to describe the positive actions of the in-group and the negative actions of the out-group. In contrast, people are more likely to use concrete terms to describe negative actions of the in-group and positive actions of the out-group. Because abstract language is more resistant to change, the in-group benefits (Maass & Arcuri, 1996). Overall, then, human information processing pulls to stereotype maintenance. The picture is not as bleak as it may seem, however: a number of cognitive processes inhibit stereotype activation and use. We summarize this research next.

Stereotype Activation And Application

Just because a group stereotype exists does not mean that someone (whom we will call the observer) will apply the stereotype to a member of the stereotyped group (whom we will call the target person; Kunda & Spencer, 2003). First, the observer must categorize, or perceive, the target person as a member of the stereotyped group. One factor that increases the likelihood of categorization is the target person’s prototypicality, or the degree to which the target person matches the observer’s beliefs about the characteristics of the stereotyped group. The closer the match, the greater the likelihood of categorization. Another factor is prejudice: More prejudiced people are more likely to categorize others as members of stereotyped groups.

Next, the group stereotype must be activated, or made ready for application to the target person. Just as they can increase the likelihood of stereotype activation, proto-typicality of the target person and prejudice of the observer can increase the likelihood of stereotype activation. The observer’s motives in the situation also play a role. For example, seeing the target person in stereotypically negative terms might enhance the observer’s self-esteem. In contrast, if the observer feels motivated to avoid prejudiced behavior, stereotype activation is likely to be inhibited.

Once a stereotype is activated, the extent to which it is likely to be applied depends on the answers to two questions (Fazio & Towles-Schwen, 1999). First, to what extent does the observer feel motivated to suppress the stereotype and thus avoid a prejudiced response? If there is little or no motivation to suppress the stereotype, it will be activated. Second, given that the observer is motivated to suppress the stereotype, is the observer able to do so? For example, very often people must exert mental effort to suppress stereotypes, so when they are distracted or preoccupied with other issues they may be unable to suppress the stereotype and it is applied. Strong emotions also tend to undermine people’s ability to inhibit stereotype application.

Once a stereotype is applied, it has a number of potentially negative effects. For example, ambiguous behaviors tend to be interpreted in terms of stereotypes. Thus, if a target person bumps into another person, an observer is likely to interpret the bump as an aggressive act if the target person is a member of a group that is stereotyped as being aggressive. Stereotypes can also have positive, albeit biased, effects. For example, members of groups that are stereotyped positively on a characteristic, such as math ability, are more likely to be recommended for jobs that require that characteristic.

Old-Fashioned And Contemporary Forms Of Prejudice

Researchers differentiate between old-fashioned and contemporary forms of prejudice. Old-fashioned prejudice is reflected in blatant expressions of stereotypes about and dislike for a group. Contemporary prejudices, in contrast, tend to be more subtle and are usually accompanied by some degree of acceptance of the equality of minority groups and rejection of traditional stereotypes. Theorists have proposed that contemporary prejudices can take several forms.

Modern-symbolic prejudice (e.g., Sears & Henry, 2003) is characterized by a high acceptance of equality of opportunity coupled with a moderate degree of acceptance of traditional stereotypes. People who experience this form of prejudice deny that discrimination continues to exist in society and believe that whites are treated unfairly relative to minority groups. They also feel mild to moderate negative emotional responses such as dislike and anxiety toward members of minority groups, but not strong emotions such as hate. They generally oppose social policies that benefit minorities but discriminate only if they can explain their behavior in nonprejudiced ways. For example, a person might say that he did not vote for a black political candidate because the candidate’s positions were too radical even though he would have voted for a white candidate who espoused the same policies.

Aversive prejudice (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004) is characterized by a high acceptance of equality coupled with a rejection of traditional stereotypes. People who experience this form of prejudice see themselves as unprejudiced but nonetheless experience mild negative emotions relative to members of minority groups. These emotions arise from being raised in a culture that contains remnants of old-fashioned prejudices. The negative emotions lead people with aversive prejudice to try to avoid interactions with members of minority groups, but if interaction is unavoidable, they are polite toward them and sometimes compensate for their negative feelings by showing a pro-minority bias. However, like people characterized by modern-symbolic prejudice, they may discriminate if they can explain their behavior in nonprejudiced ways.

Ambivalent prejudice (Katz, Wackenhut, & Haas, 1986) is also characterized by a high acceptance of equality coupled with a rejection of traditional stereotypes, but people who experience this form of prejudice have ambivalent feelings toward members of minority groups: On the one hand, they feel sympathy for the plights of minority groups as victims of discrimination and hold some positive stereotypes of the groups. On the other hand, they may feel that the groups are not doing enough to help themselves and also hold some negative stereotypes. People with ambivalent prejudice respond differently to members of minority groups depending on the situation: If a situation elicits sympathy and positive beliefs about the group, they respond positively; if the situation elicits negative emotions and beliefs, they respond negatively.

Although prejudices are generally thought of as having only negative components, there are also benevolent prejudices that are expressed in terms of superficially positive beliefs about groups (e.g., Glick & Fiske, 2001). For example, positive stereotypes that whites have about blacks include being athletic, musical, and religious, and having strong family ties. However, despite their positive veneer, benevolent prejudices, like negative prejudices, work to keep minority groups “in their place.” Thus, the benevolent stereotypes of blacks as athletic and musical, when combined with the negative stereotype that blacks are unintelligent, could lead to the belief that they are qualified to be professional athletes and entertainers but not business executives. People who strongly endorse positive stereotypes also tend to endorse negative stereotypes strongly, providing additional evidence that positive stereotyping contributes to prejudice.

Individual Differences

The term individual differences refers to psychological factors on which people differ from one another, such as personality, values, and belief systems. Prejudice researchers have studied a large number of individual difference variables, but we will focus on the two that have the strongest relationships to prejudice: right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation.

RWA (Altemeyer, 1996) is a cluster of attitudes that reflect a high deference to authority, strong belief in traditional norms and values, and hostility toward people and groups condemned by authority figures or who are perceived to violate traditional norms and values. Several characteristics of people high in RWA may predispose them to prejudice. For example, they tend to see the world in simple terms and want definitive answers to questions. People high in RWA also tend to see the world as a dangerous and threatening place, leading them to place a high value on security. They submit to authority and conform to group norms as a way of finding simple, definite answers to life’s questions and seek security in the protection of the group under the guidance of its authority figures (Duckitt, 2001).

Submission to authority is an important aspect of the link between RWA and prejudice. People high in RWA see prejudice as permissible if authority figures condone such a response. However, this perception does not mean they see other forms of prejudice as acceptable. For example, people high in RWA tend to be high in prejudice against lesbians and gay men but to show no more racial prejudice than do people low in RWA. These relationships exist because some authority figures condemn lesbians and gay men for violating traditional values, but the same authority figures oppose racial prejudice.

Social dominance orientation (SDO; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999) is an attitude cluster that reflects a people’s desires for their groups to dominate in society along with a belief that group inequality is a natural, acceptable, and even desirable state of affairs. Given this viewpoint, it is not surprising that people high in SDO are prejudiced against groups that challenge social equality, such as African Americans, lesbians and gay men, and feminists. People high in SDO also tend to see the world as a highly competitive place in which individuals and groups must struggle against one another for survival (Duckitt, 2001).

Thus, people high in SDO tend to see competing groups as threats to their own groups and to develop negative attitudes toward those competitors.

Finally, it is important to note that although both RWA and SDO are attitude clusters that are related to prejudice, they are separate belief systems: A person can be high on both, low on both, or high on one but low on the other. It is the people who are high on both who exhibit the greatest amount of prejudice.

The Social Context Of Prejudice

So far, we have discussed theories of stereotyping and prejudice that focus on people as individuals. Now we turn to theories that take the social context into account: Individuals interact as group members and the resulting intergroup processes affect their attitudes and behaviors toward others. These intergroup processes can be cooperative or competitive, both of which lead to different consequences for intergroup interaction.

Realistic conflict theory is based on the assumption that people are motivated to maximize the rewards they receive in life, even if that means taking those rewards away from other people (e.g., Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994). Cooperating with other in-group members is one way to achieve that goal, but this approach is derailed when different groups pursue the same resources and end up competing for them. The competition created by such situations often leads to dislike for, and prejudice against, members of the competing groups. This process was vividly demonstrated by Sherif’s Robbers Cave study. Sherif (1966) created intergroup conflict by dividing boys who were otherwise quite similar in background and experience into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles. These groups engaged in typical summer camp activities, such as athletic competitions. As predicted by realistic conflict theory, soon the groups showed strong support for their own in-group and hostility toward the out-group. Sherif’s research has been widely replicated.

According to social identity theory (e.g., Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994), people’s self-concept is strongly linked to membership in groups that are personally important to them. Examples of such groups are family, school, athletic team, or nation. We earlier discussed that people readily draw distinctions between these in-groups and the groups with which they do not identify, or out-groups. As we also noted earlier, this basic social categorization process leads to the perception that out-group members are quite similar to one another whereas in-group members are each quite unique. Two explanations have been offered for this out-group homogeneity effect. The first is based on the observation that the mere process of categorizing the self and others into in-groups and out-groups can create intergroup competition. This categorization-competition hypothesis proposes that North American (and other) cultural groups are simply naturally competitive (Ostrom & Sedikides, 1992). The second explanation for the out-group homogeneity effect is the self-esteem hypothesis: People are motivated to achieve and maintain positive social identities, and belonging to groups aids in this process. When people believe that their in-group is better than an out-group, their personal self-esteem is enhanced. This strategy is especially likely to be utilized by people with low self-esteem and by group members whose self-esteem has been threatened.

When people become dissatisfied with some aspect of their lives, they think about how their circumstances compare with either their own past or others’ current situation. According to relative deprivation theory, either comparison can lead to the conclusion that someone is not getting what is deserved. Doing so results in feelings of deprivation (e.g., I am missing out on something) that, in turn, can lead to blaming others for this undesirable outcome (Crosby, 1976). Whether this blame comes from a failure to meet one’s personal expectations or from social comparison with another person’s situation, when a group is blamed for the deprivation the result can be prejudice and hostility toward that group, which extends to blaming and even punishing an innocent out-group member who had no role in the relative deprivation. This process is called scapegoating. A vivid example happened in post-World War I Germany when the Nazis blamed the Jewish people for their economic and social ills. This blame was later used as justification for a number of anti-Semitic laws and, subsequently, for the Nazi Holocaust.

From Prejudice To Discrimination

We have defined prejudice as an attitude—a set of beliefs about and emotions felt toward a group and discrimination as a behavior—how people act toward members of a group. Discrimination can be either active or passive. In active discrimination, a person does something that causes active harm to another person because of that person’s group membership. Denying a person a job on the basis of race would be active discrimination. Like blatant prejudice, active discrimination is socially condemned and therefore probably occurs relatively infrequently. Passive discrimination is more subtle; it entails doing harm by not acting. Not providing help to another person because of that person’s race would be an example of passive discrimination. Note that passive discrimination can often be attributed to nonprejudiced motives such as “I didn’t help her because I didn’t think there was a problem.” Consequently, passive discrimination is often associated with modern-symbolic and aversive prejudice and so is probably more common than active discrimination.

Recall that each form of discrimination can occur at different levels of society. For example, interpersonal dis-crimination consists of behaviors that one person directs at another. Institutional or organizational discrimination occurs when the norms, policies, or practices of a social institution or organization lead to different outcomes for different groups. For example, produce in grocery stores in poor neighborhoods is often of poorer quality and sold at higher prices than is produce in stores in wealthier neighborhoods.

Especially at the interpersonal level, the extent to which prejudice results in discrimination depends on a number of factors. For example, observers are more likely to discriminate against targets whose characteristics better fit the observers’ stereotype of the targets’ group. People are also more likely to discriminate when they think other people agree with their behavior. In contrast, many people are motivated to inhibit their potentially discriminatory behavior due to their personal belief systems, motivation to conform to nondiscriminatory social norms, or concern for how other people would react to discriminatory behavior (Dunton & Fazio, 1997; Plant & Devine, 1998). However, some behaviors, such as nonverbal reactions, are not under people’s conscious control, so a prejudiced attitude might be expressed subtly in the form of a frown. Also, like motivation to suppress stereotypes, motivation to avoid discrimination can be undermined by many factors such as strong emotions and demands on cognitive resources.

When the motivation to avoid prejudice stems from personal belief systems and people find themselves acting in a prejudiced manner, they tend to be self-critical and feel guilty (Plant & Devine, 1998). These negative emotions can motivate them to be more careful about their behavior in the future and to compensate by treating members of the group they discriminated against more positively than they normally would. People who control their behavior out of concern for complying with nondiscriminatory social norms tend to feel threatened when they think they have violated the norm and to develop negative emotions, such as dislike, toward the people they see as limiting their behavior.

The Experience Of Discrimination

So far, we have focused on theories about perceivers, those individuals who are likely to hold biased beliefs about and attitudes toward social group members. On the other side of the coin are the individuals who experience the consequences of negative perceptions, those who are stigmatized by dominant group members. Experiencing discrimination can be debilitating. Even seemingly minor actions can have cumulative negative effects on the health and well-being of minority group members. These effects can be magnified when the minority group member is a solo or a token—an individual who is a minority within a particular setting (Yoder, 2002). Tokens are watched more closely than are members of the dominant group, and their characteristics and actions are often distorted to fit stereotyped expectations about their minority group. Experiencing discrimination can increase an individual’s vulnerability to stress and can threaten his or her self-esteem. In extreme cases, stigmatized group members cope by psychological disengagement. By concluding that the domain is unimportant, their self-esteem is protected if they fail in that arena. Unfortunately, doing so can affect achievement and opportunity for success in the long run (Steele, 1997).

The theory of attributional ambiguity addresses a specific problem that minority group members face—how to interpret feedback from dominant group members. The question that arises is whether the feedback is accurate or instead stems from the evaluator’s bias (Crocker, Voelkl, Testa, & Major, 1991). Stigmatized people carefully consider the source of the feedback they receive and, if that source is prejudiced, they may discount even a positive evaluation. In contrast, if the evaluator appears to be unbiased, minority group members may conclude that a positive response is due to their ability or other positive personal characteristics.

People’s response to perceived discrimination also can reflect a personal/group discrimination discrepancy. A number of studies, involving a variety of disadvantaged groups, have consistently shown that although people agree that their social group has been discriminated against, they also believe that they, personally, have not (e.g., Crosby, 1984). Why might a person draw this conclusion? One possibility is that human information processing produces this pattern of results. If true, changing the way the information is presented should reduce or eliminate the effect—and research shows this does happen. Another explanation for this effect is that when people compare their own experiences to those of their group, they use different comparison standards. When thinking about their own experiences, for example, people consider how they have fared compared to their own group, but when asked about their group experiences as a whole, people use other social groups as a point of comparison. A woman, then, might decide she is doing better than most women, but that women as a group still fare poorly compared to most men. Finally, people are motivated to believe they are not personally experiencing discrimination. Motives could include not wanting to take responsibility for or action against unfair treatment or the realization that the social costs of claiming unfairness do not outweigh the benefits of doing so.

Claude Steele (1997) has proposed the highly influential theory of stereotype threat. According to this theory, minority group members’ behavior can be affected even in situations where no discriminatory actions are in evidence. Stereotype threat results when people so fear confirming a stereotype about their social group that their performance suffers. Several factors are key to understanding stereotype threat. First, the negative performance that follows stereotype threat is situational. A woman who takes a math exam with a group of men may experience poor performance, compared to an equally capable woman who takes the exam with other women, not because she believes women have poor math skills but because having only men in the room with her brings the stereotype to mind. Second, stereotype threat has been demonstrated for a variety of social groups. Blacks who are told that a test is diagnostic of verbal ability perform more poorly than blacks who believe the test is not diagnostic, presumably because this information makes salient the stereotype that blacks have lower verbal ability than whites do. Stereotype threat has been demonstrated in a variety of performance domains, such as athletics, academic settings, and the workplace. Third, stereotype threat appears to tax cognitive resources, thereby inhibiting performance. The threat, then, is not merely an emotional reaction to the possibility of confirming a stereotype.

Reducing Prejudice

As is the case with the other topics we have discussed, there are many processes that researchers have suggested for the reduction of prejudice. We will focus on two: self-regulation and intergroup contact.

The self-regulation model of prejudice reduction (Monteith, Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Czopp, 2002) starts with people becoming aware of having acted in prejudiced ways. As just noted, awareness of having acted in a prejudiced manner leads people who are internally motivated to avoid prejudice to feel guilty. These guilt feelings lead people to ask themselves, “What made me act that way? How could I have behaved differently?” The answers to these questions then sensitize people to situations in which they may act in a prejudiced manner. When they are in such situations, they monitor their behavior to avoid reacting in prejudiced ways. Over time, this process becomes automatic and prejudice avoidance takes place without conscious thought.

The intergroup contact hypothesis (e.g., Pettigrew, 1998) holds that if members of different groups work together under the proper conditions, they will develop more positive views of members of the other group. The conditions are as follows:

  • Members of each group have equal status in the situation.
  • The groups work cooperatively to achieve common goals.
  • The situation allows people to get to know one another as individuals.
  • The intergroup effort has the support of authorities, law, or custom.

It is also important that the situation foster positive experiences with members of the other group; negative experiences can lead to more negative intergroup attitudes.

Intergroup contact operates by giving people the chance to see members of the other group as individuals, which tends to disrupt stereotypes and reduce the anxiety people might have about interacting with the other group. If members of the other group are seen as typical of their group, these processes can generalize to the group as a whole. Ultimately, members of the two groups might come to see themselves as members of a single group, which leads to the greatest reduction in prejudice. Note also that intergroup contact provides a context that can promote the self-regulation process and contribute to prejudice reduction that way as well.

Intergroup contact that occurs under the right conditions can be very effective in reducing prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). However, it does not work equally well for all people. For example, people who are highly prejudiced, have a high level of anxiety over interacting with the other group, or who have had negative experiences with members of the other group in the past are likely to be resistant to the effects of intergroup contact.


The study of stereotyping and prejudice has long been a central interest in social psychology, beginning with the classic writings of Gordon Allport (1954). As the literature has grown and new theories have been developed and tested, we have greatly increased our understanding of why people stereotype, how prejudicial attitudes are developed, and how such beliefs and evaluations affect our behavior toward members of other social groups. Social psychologists have long been interested in how understanding prejudice and discrimination can improve the lives of those who experience their effects. By studying these theories and understanding the nature of prejudice, you also can be part of this social change.


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