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Chapter 2

Prejudice: Its Forms and Causes

[Revised: August 18, 2007]


Key Concepts

  • Prejudice
  • Discrimination
  • Institutional Discrimination
  • Cognitive Prejudice
  • Affective Prejudice
  • Conative Prejudice
  • Stereotype
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Authoritarian Personality
  • Scapegoating
  • Projection
  • The Development of an Authoritarian Personality
  • Agents of Socialization
  • Selective Exposure and Modeling
  • Socioeconomic Status and Prejudice

I.     General Observations Concerning Prejudice

This chapter explores prejudice (attitudes). Prejudice is contrasted with discrimination (behaviors) in subsequent chapters.

Three general theories to explain the causes of prejudice. These theories view prejudice as based on:

The main drift of this section is the search for personality characteristics (a personality profile if you will) that would be predisposed toward prejudiced thought.

A.     Prejudice

Prejudice refers to a positive or a negative attitude or belief directed toward certain people based on their membership in a particular group. The root word of prejudice is "pre-judge." It is "a set of attitudes which causes, supports, or justifies discrimination. Prejudice refers to a tendency to "over categorize." Prejudiced people respond to others in a more or less fixed way (Farley, 2000:18).

B.     Forms of Prejudice

Farley (2000:18-19) calls attention to three kinds of prejudice.

1.     Cognitive Prejudice

Cognitive prejudice refers to what people believe is true

2.     Affective Prejudice

Affective prejudice points to peoples likes and dislikes

3.     Conative Prejudice

Conative prejudice refers to how people are inclined to behave. Note that this is still an attitude because people don't actually act on their feelings. An example of conative prejudice might be found in the statement "If I were in charge I'd send all the Wallonians back to where ever they came from."

While these three types of prejudice are correlated, they don't have to all be present in a particular individual. Someone, for example, might believe a particular group possesses low levels of intelligence, but harbor no ill feelings toward that group. On the other hand, one might not like a group because of intense competition for jobs, but still recognize no inherent differences between groups.

C.     Discrimination

Discrimination is a behavior (an action), particularly with reference to unequal treatment of people because they are of a particular group whether it be racial, ethnic, religious, or gender.

1.     Personal / Individual Discrimination

Farley (2000:16) contends that individual discrimination can refer to any act that leads to the unequal treatment because of race or ethnicity that is directed at a specific individual.


  • a home owner refusing to sell to a Jew
  • a taxi driver refusing to pick up African American fares
  • an employer paying Chicano workers a lower wage than white workers.

2.     Legal

Robertson (1989:204) contends that legal discrimination is "unequal treatment, on the grounds of group membership, that is upheld by law."

3.     Institutional Discrimination

Deliberate racial discrimination in virtually every form has been illegal for years.  None-the-less discrimination is still prevalent in our society.   Discrimination can occur within institutions in society.

Institutional discrimination is unequal treatment that is entrenched in basic social institutions. It refers to those practices in social institutions that favor one group over another.

Examples of Institutional Discrimination

Deliberate Institutional Discrimination

Institutional discrimination can be legal and deliberate like the legally required school segregation that existed in the South prior to the 1960s.

Unintentional Institutional Discrimination

Some times institutional discrimination develops without any conscious racist intent. An example would be today's high cost of college tuition.   Since people of color are typically poorer than whites, high tuition costs are institutionally discriminatory toward people of color (Farley, 2000:16).

Legal discrimination is, after all, illegal. Presumably, if one can document legal discrimination, one can remove such discrimination through the courts or legislatures.

Institutional discrimination, on the other hand, is much more insidious and, therefore, more difficult to rectify. Institutional discrimination resides within the fabric of society. Harrington (1984) poetically called institutional discrimination "structures of misery."

Eitzen and Baca-Zinn (1994:174) describe institutional discrimination as "the customary ways of doing things, prevailing attitudes and expectations, and accepted structural arrangements [that] works to the disadvantage [of the poor]." Institutional discrimination explains much inequality in gender (and race and ethnicity) found in the workplace.

D.     Stereotypes

A stereotype us a mental image, or an exaggerated belief, which assumes that whatever is believed about a group is typical for the entire group. Stereotypical thinking is unavoidable in social life and it is not automatically bad. "The essence of prejudicial thinking, however, is that the stereotype is not checked against reality. It is not modified by experiences that counter the rigid image (Farley, 2000:19).

One might note that even positive stereotypes are a mixed blessing.   On one hand, positive stereotypes justify the use of more negative stereotypes.   On the other hand, they provide unrealistic attributes that the individual has to try to live up to.

II.     Theories about Personality and Prejudice

A.     Causes of Prejudice

Prejudice probably resides within the individual. Some times, prejudiced people (i.e., those with antagonistic attitudes toward different groups) tend to be antagonistic toward any out-group.

The Hartley Study

In a study by Hartley (1946) respondents were asked about their attitudes concerning a variety of ethnic groups, including "Danireans," "Pirraneans," and "Wallonians." The study found that those people who were antagonistic towards blacks and Jews were also antagonistic toward these other three groups. The catch is that none of the three groups exist! This suggests that causes of prejudice can be found in the characteristics of those who are prejudiced.

Three theories are pursued in this chapter to explain prejudice. One looks at personality, one at social learning, and one at social structure.

1.     Adorno

Adorno contends that people are prejudice because their prejudice meets certain needs associated with their personality. People do not become prejudiced simply based on negative encounters with members of different groups. Further, he argues, prejudiced people tend to be prejudiced towards a wide variety of groups.   Adorno contends that the tendencies to be prejudice is associated with a particular personality type -- the authoritarian personality.

B.     Is Prejudice Generalized?

If prejudice is associated with a personality pattern then a prejudice person should be prejudiced regardless of who or what the group is. To test this idea Adorno employed the "AS Scale" to first test whether individual were prejudice against Jews. Next he employed the "E-Scale to test for overly strong tendencies toward ethnocentrism. There was a .8 correlation between the two scales (Farley, 2000:21).

Farley (2000:21) notes that prejudice is not associated with conservatism. While conservatives show slightly higher rates of prejudice than do liberals, there are many examples of conservatives who are not prejudice and many liberals who are prejudiced.

Although Adorno did his studies in the 1940s, current research indicates the same patterns.

C.     Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism refers to a tendency to view one's own group as the norm.  Other groups are not only viewed as different, but they are seen as strange and sometimes inferior.

D.     Authoritarian Personalities

Theodore Adorno contends that many prejudiced people have a distinct set of personality traits centered around conformity, intolerance, and insecurity. Farley (2000:23-25) lists 9 characteristics:

The authoritarian personality results from family environment. Parents are themselves "cold, aloof, disciplinarian, and themselves bigots" (see Farley, 2000:24) and people who have an authoritarian personality are prone to prejudice.

1.     Conventionalism

There is a rigid adherence to conventional values.

2.     Authoritarian Submission

Uncritical acceptance of authority.

3.     Authoritarian Aggression

There is aggressiveness toward people who do not conform to authority or conventional norms.

4.     Anti-Intraception

There is an opposition to the subjective and the imaginative. There is a rejection of self analysis. If a person has a problem or a worry, it is best for him to not think about it and to keep busy with more cheerful things.

5.     Superstitious and stereotypical thinking

6.     Concern with power and toughness

7.     Destructiveness and Cynicism

8.     Projectivity

This refers to the outward projections of unconscious emotions. It is the belief that the world is a dangerous and wild place.

9.     Exaggerated concern with sexual Behavior

Sex crimes, such as rape and attacks on children deserve more than imprisonment. Those people should be publicly whipped.

E.     The Development of an Authoritarian Personality

In looking for the causes of prejudiced personalities Adorno explored childhood experiences of prejudiced and unprejudiced people. He notes that people with an authoritarian personality are unable to view their parents criticallyThey show an inability to release frustration against authority figures who are the source of the frustration.

  1. Very strict childhood generates feelings of frustration and aggression. This involves severe punishment and highly restrictive rules (Farley, 2000:26).
  2. At the same time children are taught strong rules about respecting authority. They are also taught about the justness and legitimacy of society's ranking system.
  3. This creates a situation where the child cannot release his/her frustration against authority figures.
  4. As a result of repressed frustration and aggression, a process of scapegoating and projection occurs where the aggression is taken out on people who are low in the individuals ranking system.
  5. To avoid shaming themselves and family, fault is found in groups that lie outside the family.

F.     Scapegoating and Projection

Adorno, borrowing from Freud, argues that people with authoritarian personalities have an unusually strong need to scapegoat and to project (Farley, 2000:25). These behaviors are the result of unique childhood experiences involving repressed drives.

1.     Scapegoating (Displaced Aggression)

Blames one's troubles on someone else who is relatively powerless. This may occur when one group feels threatened, but are themselves powerless to act against the actual source of the threat (Farley, 2000:25). 

Example:  A fellow has a low level of education and can't find a job.  Rather than acknowledging that his lack of education is the problem, he blames his inability to find a job on minorities and immigrants.

2.     Projection

Projection is a similar concept where the individual denies particular characteristics in him/her self but notices them in others (2000:25).

Example:  Continuing with the example above, the fellow with little education will not acknowledge his own educational deficiencies.  Instead, he will call attention to others who do not have sufficient education.

III.     Social Learning and Conformity as a Cause of Prejudice

The above discussion of prejudice is rather psychological. There is also the social context to consider when one attempts to understand prejudice. Social scientists who study social learning and conformity as causes of prejudice focus on the social environment within which people live.  The social environment is important.   One should note, adoption of prejudiced attitudes can occur throughout the life-cycle.

People learn to be prejudice through socialization processes like internalization, modeling, and reward and punishment.

A.     Agents of Socialization

Values are internalized as people encounter various agents of socialization.  Attitudes and behaviors are learned within a social context where agents of socialization are important (Farley, 2000:29-32).

1.    The Family

The family is probably the most important of the agents of socialization. Family is responsible for, among other things, determining one's attitudes toward religion and establishing career goals.

2.    The School

This agency is responsible for socializing groups of young people in particular skills and values in our society.

3.    Peer Groups

Peers refer to people who are roughly the same age and/or who share other social characteristics (e.g., students in a college class).

4.     Work

5.     The State

6.     Media

The effect on prejudice of television and the movies is substantial.   The media's portrayal of racial and ethnic groups may be a person's principal source of information. Therefore, if the media communicates primarily in stereotypes and the viewer has little opportunity for personal contact with members of that minority, the probability of the stereotype becoming the reality to the viewer is high.

Hollywood movies have thoroughly dehumanized the nonwhite world. The whites, who are the exploiters, consistently show up as the "good guys."   Whites are portrayed as the bearers of civilization and all that is just and humane. Their superiority is taken as the natural order of things, and their "justified" extermination of the nonwhites provides a "happy" ending (Kitano, 1985:52).

The Media and Minorities

The Los Angeles Times (1979), assessed the state of minorities in television and focused on 1977 network newscasts and employment figures. Television drama continued in its failure to reflect the gender and racial/ethnic composition of American life. White males, for example, who comprised 39.9 percent of the population, made up 62.7 percent of the characters. Minorities other than blacks continued to appear only rarely in TV drama. The writer also deplored the fact that of the minorities who did get TV roles, about 50 percent appeared in the same handful of shows. These shows often placed minorities in ridiculous roles.  "Television, there fore, serves as a creator and/or reinforcer of beliefs" (Kitano, 1985:52).

B.     Selective Exposure and Modeling

Farley (2000:29) notes that "if a child is exposed to one set of values over time, the child will eventually come to view that set of vales as the "natural way". This is especially true when the models are someone whom the child is especially close to like parents or close relatives.

C.     Reward and Punishment

All agents of socialization reward behavior and expression of attitude that conform to their norms and punish those that do not. These rewards and punishments are sometime very formal. Other types of rewards and sanctions are informal and impromptu (Farley, 2000:29).

The ASCH Line Experiment

The fact that people are perfectly willing to deny objective reality in lieu of conforming to group pressure is demonstrated by the Asch experiment.

During the Asch experiment, seven confederates are asked to state that a short line is longer than a long line.  About a third of the subjects agreed with the confederates.

People will conform to prejudice attitudes as well as to a variety of other attitudes (Farley, 2000:31).  People conform in order to gain group acceptance.

D.     Personality Theory Versus Social Learning Theory

There is complex interaction between these two and it is often difficult to sort out the differences between the two.

IV.     Socioeconomic Status and Prejudice

Farley (2000:33-36) contends that there is a relatively strong relationship between ones social class and the level of prejudice. Higher levels of prejudice are seen in people of lower SES. There are a couple of logical explanations for this.

What is Socioeconomic Status (SES)?

Farley (2005:32) notes that nearly all societies tend to group themselves by socioeconomic status.  SES is a concept which is rather complex.   The average citizen may tend to group people according to simple criteria like income or wealth.  SES is a more robust concept.  Socioeconomic status (SES) calls attention the complex nature of social class.  It is determined by an array of social and economic indicators.  It is also subject to interpretation form various social perspectives.

1.     Objective Measures

There are objective measures of social class. Henslin (1999:253) suggests that researches can assign people to various social classes based objective criteria involving wealth, power, and prestige. Some objective indicators can include occupation, educational level, number of dependents, type of residence, infant mortality, and life expectancy rates.

2.     Subjective Measures

There are also subjective measures. Typically, determining class from a subjective point of view involves asking someone how they perceive their class position.

3.     Reputational Measures

Finally, class can be determined using the reputational method (Henslin, 1999:253). People identify an individual's social class based on their expert knowledge of their individual's circumstances. The reputational method is limited to smaller communities, where people are familiar with one another's reputation.  People at each class level see class differently.  They, there fore, carry around different personal pictures of society's classes.  People see finer divisions at their own class level, but tend to lump together people who occupy other class levels. For example, People at the top see several divisions of people at the top while they see one large monolithic group of people at the bottom. On the other hand, people at the bottom see several distinctions of poor people, but only one group at the top -- the rich (Henslin, 1999:253).

A.     Education and Prejudice

Most research indicates that people with higher levels of education score lower on most measures of prejudice. 

One argument suggests that people with lower socio-economic (SES) backgrounds are more rigid thinkers.  Farley (2000) argues that there is a relationship between prejudice and intolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.  People of higher SES are often better educated and education is often seen as a way to breaking down oversimplified, stereotypical thinking.  As we become better educated, we become better able to understand complex ideas and situations.  (Farley, 2000:34).

The apparent relationship between education and prejudice may also be due to other effects.  Perhaps people with higher levels of education people simply know how to respond with politically correct answers regarding racial and ethnic issues, thus masking their true feelings (Farley, 2000:34).

More Observations on Prejudice

Farley (2000:35) notes that our ability to handle complex thought is affected by other conditions besides educational levels.  He notes that we tend to rely on stereotypes more when we are busy, overwhelmed, or even functioning at a nonoptimal time.

B.     Status Insecurity and Prejudice

Another explanation resides in the relationship between status insecurity and prejudice. If, in fact, a person who is more status insecure is prejudice one can easily see why people from lower SES positions are more prone to prejudice.

C.     Lower SES and Prejudice

Lower SES representatives of the dominate group are placed in more direct competition for resources with minorities. Lower SES members of majority groups experience a greater threat from minority competition.


Farley, John E.

1988 Majority - Minority Relations. (2nd Ed.) Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

1995 Majority - Minority Relations. (3rd Ed.)  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

2000 Majority - Minority Relations. (4th Ed.)  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

2005 Majority - Minority Relations. (5th Ed.)  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Henslin, James

1999 Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach, (4th Ed) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2006 Essentials of Sociology, (6th Ed.) Boston:  Allyn and Bacon.