Prejudice In Society Research Paper

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Prejudice is defined as cognitive beliefs, affects, and discriminatory behaviors towards members of a group on account of their membership to this group. When race, other groups, sex, or sexual preferences, for instance, are the targets of prejudice, it will be labeled racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, or homophobia. Many authors add that prejudice relies on undue generalizations and is irrational. Such addition implies that one knows what the objective truth is. It also overlooks the sophisticated ways that prejudice can take.

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1. Classical Explanations

Personality was one of the first explanations to be proposed. After World War II, researchers explained fascism, ethnocentrism, and antisemitism by socialization (Adorno et al. 1950). Because children were obliged to obey parental authority blindly and to repress their hostile ideas, they later had to find scapegoats as a source of catharsis and represented the world into simplified categories: the good and the bad ones. This ‘right-winged’ authoritarian personality later was expanded to include all dogmatisms (Rokeach 1960). Whether authoritarian or dogmatic, personality cannot explain rapid changes in prejudice. Moreover, it is unable to account for regional differences in prejudice and it is mute about why certain groups, but not others, are the targets of prejudice.

Other psychologists influenced by behaviorism and psychoanalysis proposed a general theory of aggression that focused on situations (Dollard et al. 1939). According to them, aggression was a necessary consequence of frustration, and frustration was the necessary and sufficient antecedent of aggression. Applied to prejudice, this theory predicted that socio-economic factors (e.g., the price of cotton) would be determining in eliciting aggressive discriminatory behaviors (e.g., lynching of Blacks in the US). Besides being unfalsifiable, this theory is not better than personality ones in order to predict which group will be selected as a scapegoat.

Lack of contact was a third explanation (Allport 1954). It played a crucial role when the US Supreme Court ruled segregation in schools illegal. Socio- psychological experts testified that prejudice was due to lack of contacts between the groups. These psychologists were not naive to the point of thinking that contact per se was sufficient to eliminate prejudice. They listed a series of conditions under which contact would be effective. Unfortunately, in everyday life, these conditions are sometimes difficult to meet, such as contact restricted to atypical members of the stigmatized group and collaborative institutional environment. That will be discussed under different headings later on, but lack of contact is still a predominant explanation of prejudice. Sherif (1966) was one of the opponents to the contact hypothesis. For him, life is a competition for scarce resources and mere contact will render competition even harder. In order to be successful, Sherif argued, reduction of tension depends on supra-ordinate collaboration, that is, a collaboration that needs the efforts of the two otherwise competing groups.

In reaction to Sherif’s conceptualization, proponents of Social Identity Theory stressed the fact that resources need not be real to induce conflict (Tajfel 1981). Symbolic resources may suffice. For these theoreticians, mere categorization into groups will lead to ethnocentrism, also called in-group favoritism bias, if the latter brings out a positive social identity to the discriminators.

2. Modern Forms Of Prejudice

Prejudice or at least its expression has decreased over the years. When the measure of stereotypes, that is, measure of general beliefs about groups’ behaviors and personality, was discovered in the early 1930s, it was a good thing for white Americans to express negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Whites gave more negative stereotypes about African-Americans when responding publicly than when answering anonymously. Now, the targets of open prejudice or stereotypes become rarer although they still exist (e.g., integrists). Such a situation does not mean that prejudice has disappeared. According to the authors, it is either the form or the conditions of expression that have changed. Here, we review briefly the different conceptualizations (see Dovidio and Gaertner 1986).

The most pessimistic view is probably the one of symbolic racism. For its proponents, prejudice has remained the same but its expression has become subtler because of the pressure from the society. The most optimistic view is represented by regressive racism, which suggests that prejudice has decreased but that it comes again to the surface in stressful situations. Between these two extremes, aversive racism defends the idea that people persuade themselves that they are not prejudiced and try to rationalize what could be considered prejudiced in their behavior. Under the label of ambivalent amplification racism, other theoreticians hypothesize that people have ambivalent feelings about others. According to the circumstances, these ambivalent feelings are amplified either towards the absence of prejudice or towards its expression.

In fact, prejudice itself may take ambivalent forms. To the same extent that sociability and competence are the two dimensions organizing person perception, they may also guide the perception of groups. Groups may be perceived as likeable but incompetent (e.g., housewives) or they may be considered competent but unlikable (e.g., feminists). Competence would be triggered by the status of the group in the society (e.g., feminists are perceived as intellectuals). Likability, on the other hand, would result from the outcome dependence between the dominant and the dominated groups in society (e.g., the males ‘need’ housewives). Because of these differences in the perception of groups, people will try to explain them. The most radical explanation is to attribute them a different (genetic, cultural, linguistic, religious) essence. Because group members are all and foremost concerned with their in-group, they will attribute to it the human essence. It follows that they will attribute an infrahuman essence to ‘others.’ This infrahuman essence is characterized by a lack of typically human attributes. According to the circumstances, these deficient attributes can be the intelligence, the language, some typically human emotions such as love or sorrow, etc. (Leyens et al. 2000).

Finally, to the same extent that lack of contact was thought to reduce prejudice, many authors have argued that lack of cognitive resources may facilitate the expression of prejudice. All people know the negative stereotypes held by different groups and many do not share them. However, when they are overloaded by a demanding environment and in need of cognitive capacities, they may let prejudice leak. Such perspective makes a clear distinction between beliefs or stereotypes, on the one hand, and prejudice on the other (Devine 1989). It is obvious that, in normal circumstances, the attribution of an infrahuman essence is only possible under lack of cognitive control. In war times, on the contrary, this attribution often constitutes a conscious strategy.

Besides their differences, these different conceptualizations share one common point. Increasingly, prejudice is considered less a reaction against some other groups of individuals but more a measure of protection of the in-group. In general, people are less concerned by the other groups than by the well being of their own group.

3. Implicit And Explicit Measures Of Prejudice

Prejudice typically was measured by questionnaires. To give but one example, the ‘social distance scale’ proposed different items of the form: ‘I would accept a member of X (the group concerned) in the country, in the street, at work, as a friend, as a member of my family, etc.’ A response at one level (e.g., at work) implied acceptance of the lower levels (e.g., country and street). As the expression of prejudice changed, its measures had to be adapted. From being blatant, questionnaire items have become more subtle but it is still easy to guess their purpose and, therefore, to control one’s answers. These questionnaire measures are called explicit.

Some behaviors are obviously a more valuable source of information than questionnaires. Prosocial behaviors in the street or hiring rates in high-status positions on the job market may be taken as valid indicators of nonprejudice.

Laboratory implicit measures have also proliferated. Some of these measures have the advantage that the participants to the studies are not at all aware of what is measured. For instance, participants have to decide whether the string of letters they see on the screen of a computer is a word or a nonword. Among the words there are some positive or negative words. Before the presentation of some of the words, a social category is primed subliminally. The typical finding of such procedure is that the reaction times will be shorter for positive words when the social category is liked and for negative words when the social category is disliked.

The problem still to be solved concerns the correlations between these different measures. The questionnaire measures usually correlate highly between them. They rarely correlate, however, with behaviors and implicit measures. Also, different implicit measures do not necessarily correlate between themselves, which means that they probably measure different aspects of prejudice.

4. Automatic And Controlled Prejudice

The pervasive expression of prejudice and the development of implicit measures have launched an important and provocative debate about automatic vs. controlled behavior. One is reminded here of the unconscious in psychoanalysis.

Not long ago, most social psychologists believed that people made errors in their social judgments and, therefore, showed prejudice because they were unmotivated or incompetent to attend correct information. Intelligence (or information) and effort were thought to be able to counterbalance these ‘errors.’ At present, some researchers do not hesitate to claim that people’s first reactions are automatic and that neither abilities nor motivation can help. Automaticity does not imply inevitability of prejudice. It only means that people with prejudice will show it in their first reactions no matter how hard they try not to.

Automatic behavior will also depend on what is activated. A Black person is not only Black; she may also be tall, attractive, a physician, a woman, etc. The activation of the concept ‘woman’ may induce seduction. The activation of ‘physician’ may lead to help-seeking behavior. Among many persons, however, there is a limit to this flexibility. A lot of individuals will see a physician when this Black physician brings good news, and they will see a Black person when the physician is the bearer of bad news.

This link between a category and its attributes has implications. Active suppression of a category (e.g., skinhead) may, paradoxically, lead to a rebound effect. Stated otherwise, people who are instructed not to think of someone as a skinhead may, later on, perceive him as more prototypical of a skinhead. Indeed, by an ironic process, the monitoring of ‘not-thinking-skinhead’ activates attributes pertaining to the category. When the suppression is abandoned, all the activated attributes pop up; it is the rebound effect.

Up to now, we have reasoned as if activation of a category and of its attributes always led to an assimilation process (i.e., prejudice). It is true that people who are primed with the concept of professors do better at a Trivial Pursuit game than those who have been primed by the concept ‘hooligan.’ Priming specific exemplars of a category, like Einstein, may lead to a contrast effect. Indeed, everyone realizes that they are not Einstein and far from resembling him. This example leads us naturally to the attempts at reducing prejudice.

5. Reduction Of Prejudice

One can distinguish between two approaches in the studies that looked at the reduction of prejudice. One approach focuses on information about individuals and the other concentrates on categorical representation of the world.

5.1 The Focus On Individuals

This approach relies mostly on the intellectual (and somewhat emotional) abilities to take into account evidence contradictory with one’s prejudice. Three models have been proposed as possible ways to reduce prejudice:

5.1.1 The Conversion Model. According to this model, which could also be called the Sidney Poitier or Mandela model, the encounter with a very atypical member of a disliked category could provoke a conversion that would generalize to the whole category. Although anecdotal evidence is not lacking in favor of this model, no experimental demonstration has yet succeeded.

5.1.2 The Book-Keeping Model. For the proponents of this model, people would integrate the different pieces of information that they receive from various members of the stigmatized group and that contradict their beliefs. Reduction of prejudice would be proportionate to the contradicting information. Empirical evidence in support of this model exists but it is not overwhelming.

5.1.3 The Subtyping Model. When confronted with contradicting information, people would try to subcategorize the exceptions in order to maintain their representation of the whole category intact. ‘These women are unemotional; but they are not real women, they are businesswomen.’ Needless to say that this strategy is often used.

5.2 The Focus On Categories

It is not surprising that this approach has been more elaborated than the previous one by psychologists because it goes back to the definition of prejudice, that is, reaction against individuals because of the category they belong to.

5.2.1 Decategorization. The early proponents of the contact hypothesis were members of the human relations movement and believed that solutions to conflicts would come from considering anybody as an individual rather than part of a given category. In spite of the disaster brought up by the compulsory desegregation of schools in the US, decategorization can be effective in eliminating the in-group favoritism bias.

5.2.2 Recategorization. It is often unrealistic to transform group members into mere individuals. Supporters of recategorization inspired themselves of Sherif’s (1966) superordinate goal. This goal could only be achieved when all parties put their forces together and create some kind of new entity. Re- categorization also eliminates the in-group favoritism bias, but it does it differently and more advantageously than decategorization. Whereas decategorization brings the attraction to the in-group down to the level of the out-group, recategorization carries the attraction of the out-group up to the level of the in-group. Recategorization transforms the ‘we’ and ‘they’ into ‘us.’

5.2.3 Cross-Categorization. It is said that Belgium never had bloody conflicts despite its history of linguistic problems because language was not the only divider in the country; religion and political orientations also played a role. Language cross-cuts religion and ideology. The problem with cross-categorization is that some people will find similarities with the other side, but that others will be completely different.

5.2.4 Harmonious Differentiation. European researchers especially are aware that it may be neither feasible nor desirable to get away with categories. Some of them defend a blend of decategorization while at the same time proposing means to respect existing categories. This stream of research is still in need of convincing results.

6. The Targets’ Reactions To Prejudice

Members of stigmatized group may suffer from prejudice and react to it in different ways (Crocker et al. 1998). When treated badly, for example, some may prefer to attribute the situation to discrimination rather than to their misconduct. Such a solution preserves their self-image. Others prefer to condemn their own behavior because this behavior can change whereas they will remain forever in their stigmatized group. The conditions that stir up the first or the second reaction are not yet well known.

Another solution is to find innovative ways to affirm a valuable identity. A typical example is the case of the African-Americans who invested in sport when the slogan ‘Black is beautiful’ lost its momentum. Simultaneously to this investment in a new domain, members of stigmatized groups may disengage themselves from goals that are denied to them. School or work may become unimportant for some of them. Indeed, very often, immigrants’ children do poorly in school and their peer group is likely to disavow those who do well.

Besides the lack of social support, the atypical members of stigmatized groups suffer an additional burden in competitive situations like exams or job interviews. Not only do they feel the anxiety linked to the situation, but they have the additional anxiety to demonstrate that they are atypical of their group. It is, for instance, the case of women and mathematics, or of children from poor families and school achievement in general. In a way, it is a fulfilling prophecy.


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