Social Psychology - Prejudice


Prejudice is a predictable human tendency that exists in myriad forms in virtually all social cultures. Typically, prejudice derives from some of the same atavistic and xenophobic natural impulses that played some protective role in evolutionary times, much like aggressive impulses. In modern society, the aggressive impulses are largely kept in check by secular laws, but still find expression in various ways.

To a large extent, overt prejudice and so-called "benign" prejudice derive from the exact same sentiments although that view may conflict with popular sentiment. In reality, the primary difference between overt and benign (or "passive") prejudice may relate to different levels of aggression more than any fundamental differences between them. In that regard, various behavioral clues having to do with aggression levels in the individual may correspond to a greater propensity toward one or the other even given the same underlying sentiments.


Prejudice refers, generally, to the automatic expectations associated with stereotyping in combination with some degree of negative sentiments about other individuals based on assumptions about them as a member of group rather than an objective response to them individually. In contemporary American society, the concept of prejudice arises most typically with respect to racial and cultural differences, although it is hardly limited to those types of differences between people. Previously, prejudice on the part of Europeans and American Colonists accounted for the most shameful episode of American history, represented by the forced enslavement of millions of Africans. It was primarily prejudicial beliefs about what attributes constituted "humanity" on the part of the Europeans that justified, in the minds of God-fearing Christians enslaving native Africans and brutalizing them by forcing them into lifelong slavery.

In the United States, several specific forms of prejudice are recognized in secular laws that protect certain individuals as protected "suspect classes" against whom any apparently prejudicial treatment or discrimination has been specifically prohibited by constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court since the latter half of the 20th century (Friedman 2005).

Other forms of prejudice are recognized by law but protected less strictly; still others are recognized mainly in the academic sense and not addressed at all at law. In some respects, the most insidious and damaging type of prejudice are those considered by many to be "benign" because to the extent they are expressed, it is in the context of promoting one's own group rather than the denigration of others. Finally, social aggression also often plays a role in the degree to which prejudice is openly expressed through overt behavior instead of remaining within purely private sentiments.

Types of Prejudice:

Racial prejudice is predicated upon a distinction among various so-called "races" represented in the human species that evolutionary biologists have recently begun suggesting is completely illusory (Gerrig & Zimbardo 2005). One of the revelations that has emerged since the completion of the principle components of the Human Genome Project is that racial distinctions within the human species (homo sapiens) is a figment of human imagination more than a biological reality. In fact, virtually all of us carry genetic markers formerly associated with different races; racial designations amount to little more than arbitrary characterizations of individuals based on observable physical differences, practically none of which is entirely unique to the groups associated with them (Gerrig & Zimbardo 2005). Nevertheless, American society reflects a relatively high degree of polarization by virtue of race as well as a strong racial component of self-identity among individuals.

The Emancipation Proclamation was the formal end of slavery as an American Institution but racial segregation and oppression persisted in the U.S. well into the 20th century before being addressed by legal authorities. For much of the first half of the 20th century, the descendents of the African slaves freed by Lincoln after the American Civil War endured overt discrimination and unequal treatment throughout every conceivable element of society.

Though not entirely eliminated today, contemporary laws and social values have at least reduced its intensity and explicitly outlawed prejudicial behavior based on race in all facets of American society capable of being regulated by governmental authorities (Friedman 2005). As a result, remaining sentiments of prejudice more often exist only in private rather than being expressed openly and prejudicial treatment of racial minorities is far less common than in previous eras of American social history.

Cultural prejudice is identical to racial prejudice except that it is predicated upon a distinction among cultural heritage instead of racial identity. However, whereas racial prejudice has a long history of aggressive expression directed at other racial groups, cultural prejudice arises more often in a passive context, such as restricting one's associations outside one's culture of origin. Whereas racial prejudice is more often associated with aggressive sentiments about others, cultural prejudice is more often associated with a protective xenophobia that motivates self-imposed separation from other cultural groups.

However, where a history of specific conflict between cultures characterizes the respective sentiments about various cultures, cultural prejudice may inspire even greater intensity of antagonism, even outright hatred, such as evidenced by the horrific events in the Balkans in the last decade before the turn of the 21st century. Cultural hatred and prejudice still accounts for a tremendous amount of human brutality in half a dozen regions of Africa continuing today and for countless smaller conflicts persisting around the world in which part of cultural "tradition" includes the resentment and dislike for other cultures perceived as rivals or long-term enemies.

In the U.S., culturally prejudicial practices are formally prohibited to the same degree and in virtually all of the same public areas of life as is racial prejudice.

Unfortunately, like racial prejudice, cultural prejudice often persists privately at a much higher level than is acknowledged openly. Other common forms of prejudice are those predicated on age, gender, sexual orientation, and income or social class, among many others. Several are prohibited by federal employment and housing law whereas others are only officially recognized by the laws of various states.

The Myth of "Benign" Prejudice:

In general, contemporary American values strongly discourage any expression of prejudice against others - most particularly, that associated with racial and cultural bias - to the extent it involves negative characterization of other races and cultures. On one hand, American society has completely reversed itself on the issue of racial and cultural prejudice as socially acceptable perspectives; on the other hand, it seems that we are virtually oblivious to the fact that benign prejudice is equally destructive because it perpetuates the mindset that accounts for overt prejudice (Henslin 2002).

At the same time that contemporary American social values emphasizes "tolerance" it ignore altogether that promoting racial "unity" and "pride" among individual races is no less discriminatory in principle than the separatist mentality that focuses in a negative way on other groups. For example, those who purposely choose to support businesses and social causes specifically because they are owned by members of their race or culture are manifesting racial and cultural prejudice just as much as those who perpetrate prejudice more directly against members of other groups. In essence, the belief that one's race (or culture or gender, for other examples) is something over which they should experience "pride" or "loyalty" is a form of prejudice against all other groups.

In principle, it is absolutely impossible to experience positive sentiments about one's own race without at the same time devaluing all others to the same degree. In fact, tolerance of this idea actually undermines the cause of eliminating prejudice from society because it ignores the most fundamental basis of the argument against prejudice in the first place: namely, that one's race, and culture, and gender, and age, and sexual orientation are completely irrelevant to one's character and aptitude.

Therefore, the solution to prejudice in society is to recognize that allegiances to one's own "suspect class" is no more justifiable than prejudicial treatment against that of others. The answer to prejudice is not to circle the wagons around one's own group but to oppose any form of self-identification with arbitrary concepts that give rise to prejudice among individuals of different social identities.

Aggression in Society:

Aggression varies substantially among different individuals and is determined by numerous complex interrelationships between natural (i.e. inherited genetic) tendencies and elements of socialization both within the family and elsewhere throughout the formative years (Gerrig & Zimbardo 2005). Generally, the males of most animal species are more aggressive than females and this is a direct function of the evolutionary development of gender roles and protection of resources. In humans and other higher forms of animal life such as the Great Apes, aggression towards others is an element of learned social behavior modeled by others during the formative years.

Genetics plays a strong role in that the progeny of aggressive individuals are more likely to exhibit that trait than the progeny of more passive individuals, to whatever extent their aggression is a function of heredity. However, aggression is also largely determined…