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Understanding The Psychology Behind Prejudice, Stereotypes, And Discrimination

We have an opinion about everything, be it our favorite cuisine, the places we want to visit and even about our friends, about the world and our surroundings. The term used to define these views is our “attitude” towards the same. All of us form attitudes towards our surroundings based on our understanding of the world and our mental schemas. Social psychologists study the behaviors of individuals and understand the reasons behind them, how these behaviors are formed and affected by others and their social surroundings.

In this article, we specifically talk about the negative attitudes towards a particular group, which include prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes.


Prejudice is the affective component of an attitude. Prejudice is often accompanied by hatred and dislike towards a particular group. We encounter several examples of prejudice every day, how people feel towards racial and gender minorities. Prejudice based on group memberships such as gender, religion, age, language spoken by people, their sexual orientation, where they work , their occupation, or body weight, to name just a few examples, can have important repercussions on its victims. I would like to point out that people who are prejudiced towards a particular group often like to give reasons for their beliefs that have no scientific data to back up their beliefs, that is, it is akin to ignorance and false beliefs. People tend to generalize from individuals to the group as a whole. When we are born and brought up in a society where prejudice is practiced, we tend to accept these beliefs casually. Often people make no efforts to change their beliefs.


The behavioral component of negative attitudes is discrimination. When these prejudices and stereotypes become overt and hostile towards a particular group, we often use the term discrimination. Not a single day goes by, when we do not hear stories about discrimination on minority groups. Racism, benevolent sexism, hostile sexism, discriminating on the basis of gender, caste, and age are some such examples. It can sometimes be subtle and unintentional or can take a very violent form.


The cognitive component is stereotyping and is not always negative. It is basic human nature that we divide our thoughts, emotions into categories. The category-based schemas or mental frameworks formed towards a group of people are known as stereotypes/stereotyping. The nature of stereotypes is that they are over-generalized and not verified directly. There is no room for exceptions. The inferences we draw about a particular group are formed due to preconceived notions and are not better explained by logical thinking.

How do prejudices towards groups develop?

There are various sources of prejudices studied by social psychologists.

  • Learning: Prejudices are learned through reinforcements, modeling, observing others, punishments, and forming associations. How we view a particular group depends on how we learn about a specific community. Family, friends, people’s personal experiences, and media play a major role in forming prejudices!

  • Ingroup bias and a Strong Social Identity: People who are very close to the members, agendas, and goals of their own groups have a strong sense of social identity. Ingroup bias refers to the preferential treatment given to their own group members. This kind of attitude tends to form negative opinions about members of other groups, thus fostering prejudiced beliefs.

  • Scapegoating: In simple terms scapegoating means blaming members of the other groups for their own social, economic, or political problems. This is frequently done by majority groups who try to overpower minority groups because they are weak and cannot defend themselves against false accusations.

  • Concept of Kernel of Truth: People often do not change their perception about other groups because they think there might be a certain “Kernel of truth” in the stereotypes. They will casually cite a few examples and try to prove their arguments without any scientific data.

  • Self-fulfilling prophecy: People of their own group can cause harm to themselves by behaving the way others try to portray them. This can strengthen stereotypes and prejudice about a certain community which can have bad consequences on themselves.

Can minority groups influence change?

Yes, minorities can influence CHANGE. There have been so many instances where small minorities have dug in their heels and have refused to walk along and have chosen their own path. But, how precisely can minorities impact majority decisions?

First, their goals need to be specific and all of the members should agree with what change they want to bring about. If they are divided among themselves, their impact is reduced.

Secondly, their demands must be flexible and they must avoid being rigid concerning their beliefs. If they are simply repeating their demands and their demands sound dogmatic, it is like shouting in a tunnel where there is no one to hear them at all!

One important thing to keep in mind is the social context and the contemporary beliefs in the times, they want to bring about the change. If a minority wants to argue for their position that is consonant with the current social issues, the chances of having an impact on the majority are greater.

Strategies to Reduce Prejudice and Discrimination

Understanding the causes of prejudice can help us know what to change and how to handle prejudice.

  • Unlearning and minimizing sources of these prejudices, meaning if we actively avoid the sources where these prejudices start to stem from, we can reduce prejudice!

  • Changing such attitudes: Making an effort to bring about a change in our attitude can be beneficial.

  • Being flexible with our beliefs and de-emphasizing our strong social identity.

  • Education: Awareness is key and disseminating correct information about minority groups can help tackle the problem of prejudice.

  • Communication: Eliminating mistrust among contrasting groups, putting light on positive qualities about other groups, and allowing communication within and between groups can help reduce prejudice.

  • Focusing on individual identity rather than group identity.

We must try to be aware and conscious of our thoughts, behavior, and emotions. For a society to function properly, we must try to eliminate as much negativity as we can to work for the better!

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