What is the Cause of Prejudice and Discrimination?

Prejudice and discrimination are often core themes in the conflicts between people; it is how strangers can come to hate each other so much that they do great harm to one another.

Image by Truthseeker08 on Pixabay

Ultimately Prejudice and discrimination exist due to social learning and conformation to social norms. If certain prejudiced attitudes are socially acceptable, there also exists a normative pressure to conform to those beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. I’m not going to lie; there are times in my life where I have gone against my better judgement, embracing and enabling prejudiced attitudes, and It weighs on my mind.

Prejudice is an unjustified attitude towards an individual based solely on said person’s inclusion within a particular social group; within these groups, people are categorised by: social class, race, gender, religion, etc. Discrimination refers to the preferential behaviours resulting in people being treated differently based on what “group” they belong to.

I’ve meditated on these themes many times throughout my life, so I chose to research the topic more and write this piece. I found research into prejudice and discriminatory psychology revolving around four key themes:

  1. Stereotypes
  2. Authoritarian Personality types
  3. Realistic Conflict Theory
  4. And Social Identity Theory

Let’s talk about each one.


A stereotype is an over-generalised belief about a particular group or social class. You infer a person’s characteristics and abilities using assumptions about their social group. There may be an evolutionary advantage to stereotyping; it allows you to respond quickly to experiences you feel like you’ve had before. It has the disadvantages of causing us to ignore the differences between people, causing us to make generalisations that may be invalid.

Stereotypes simplify our world, limiting the amount of thinking we need to do when we meet new people. Stereotypes lead to social categorisation and are one of the reasons behind prejudiced attitudes; they exist for all races, cultures and ethnic groups.

A famous study of racial stereotyping by psychologists Daniel Kotz and Kenneth Braley aimed to investigate Americans’ stereotypical attitudes towards other races. It was a questionnaire filled out by the students at Princeton University, and the students did hold clear negative views about the other races.

The students, mostly white Americans, viewed jews as shrewd and mercenary, the Japanese as shrewd and sly, and black people as lazy and happy-go-lucky. White people were seen as industrious and intelligent; its common to see stereotypes positively reflect those who hold them. Every racial group likely has negative stereotypes towards other groups.

Fear plays a big part in Prejudice and discrimination, fear of races that are different to yours may cause you to retreat and seek comfort in your pre-established “ordinary”. Alternatively, you can be guilty of using other races as a scapegoat to distance yourself from behaviours seen as wrong; many times have I heard things like “that’s only things that white people do”; statements like that made by people of colour.

Just because individuals hold stereotypical views does not mean they will act on them. But stereotypes direct our attention towards specific details and away from others, altering what we are likely to notice. For example, a statement like “Oh! Aren’t you strong for a woman”, the soft bigotry of low expectations. A subtle effect is that we can shift our performance standards depending on the social group of the people we encounter.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is an expectation held by someone which causes them to act in a way that makes the prediction accurate. When you have stereotypes about a person, you will treat the person per your expectations; ultimately, you’ll influence how the person acts, inadvertently causing the person to fulfil the stereotype.

I am an autistic black man who grew up in one of the rougher neighbourhoods in London. I did well at school, got good grades, attended university and got my master's in chemistry. Despite my best efforts, my speech often drifts into slang and broken English patterns. It became apparent that I was being taken for a fool not long before entering the university. It is so obvious to me because iv experienced it many times in every educational institution that I have been in.

I can tell when people think im stupid; I can tell when people assume that I am a gangster. My neuromuscular awareness had worn down due to a more sedentary lifestyle and restrictive eating; people would think that I had a gangsters walk, unaware that my joints and muscles have worn down to the point where I walked with a genuine limp.

In group work, nobody would take my word seriously; I could make a point back it up with 100% clear and coherent logic. None of it mattered unless it came out of someone else’s mouth; eventually, I stopped caring and putting in any effort as it was going unappreciated. If I speak bluntly or insensitively to someone, they don’t point it out; I think it’s because they assume that I am just rude and unresponsive to criticism; therefore, I usually carry on unaware of the damage done. If people believe that you’re the scum of society, then in their heads, it makes it easier to justify why they can act cold or rudely toward you even if you have done them no harm. It’s easy to mistake a misunderstanding for a callous act of selfishness and spite if you already feel like you’re dealing with a selfish person. If you’re asked to intervene in a dispute, it is easier to be manipulated into taking one side over another if your bias has already led you to assume you know who is in the wrong. I do hold some responsibility; after all, I could have made a more significant effort to conform, play their little game of dress-up and try to smile more, but screw that.

Authoritarian Personality Types

If you would prefer a world that enforces strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom, it seems that you are a person who favours authoritarian policies. You can argue that our personality traits predispose some of us to lean toward prejudice.

Psychologist Theodore W Adorno proposed that prejudice results from an individual’s personality type. Those with more authoritarian tendencies are likely to be hostile to those of lower status and obedient to people of higher status. You’d also be more rigid in your beliefs or opinions, more likely to uphold more conventional, traditional values. The theory goes that authoritarian personality traits manifest through childhoods dominated by relentlessly harsh and critical parents. Someone raised in this environment cannot express hostility or discontent toward their parents; forced conformity means one must displace their insecurities and anger onto targets they perceive as weaker or inferior.

Similarly, these tendencies are predisposed to cruelty and dictatorship. You’d be more likely to view your ethnic group as above others, more likely to be obsessed with rank or status or a preoccupation with strength and toughness.

These concepts may contribute to prejudice and discrimination, but the big picture is more complicated. Strict parenting won’t always produce children with authoritarian mindsets; likewise, people will adopt prejudiced attitudes without displaying authoritarian characteristics. It also doesn’t explain why a person may act prejudiced against certain groups and not others.

Personality variables like authoritarianism may be important for developing prejudiced attitudes; however, I feel like cultural and social norms contribute more significantly, along with education levels.

Realistic Conflict Theory

The discussion of realistic conflict theory starts with a report titled “the robbers’ cave experiment”. 22 white, 11-year old boys were sent to a special remote summer camp. All the boys were from protestant, two-parent backgrounds and middle-classed, all strangers no one knew each other. The boys were split into two groups, initially unaware of each other’s existence. Psychologist Muzafer Sherif suggested that conflicts between groups of people arise when they compete for limited resources.

At the start, the group members got to know each other, social norms developed, and they soon established leadership and group hierarchy. Conflicts began as the two groups came into contact and were made to compete. They were competing for medals, and it seemed as if food and other resources were limited to create a subconscious demand.

What started as passive-aggressive behaviour, teasing and name-calling soon escalated into acts of stealing and vandalism. The boys’ groups became so aggressive that they had to be separated by the researchers.

After competing, each boy listed features of their own and the opposing group. As you may expect, the boys spoke highly of their team whilst talking negatively about the other group. They stole food from each other; the losing team would receive no medals or compensation prizes; In this case, a form of competitive pressure is sparking prejudice and discriminatory acts.

The researchers noted that to resolve to feud, both teams had to face an obstacle too significant for any of them to manage alone, forcing them to cooperate. Reading through the study does open my eyes a bit because it shows that even if there are no differences in race, social class, age, or sex, people will still find ways to be prejudiced and discriminate against each other.

In the real world, we always see conflicts inspired by a lack of resources; for example, in times of economic hardship, if everyone is struggling for employment, natives on the land may feel as if foreigners or immigrants are taking their jobs, which can cause conflict.

Social Identity Theory

A concept introduced to psychology by Henri Tajfel was social identity theory, a person’s sense of who they are, based on what group they belong to; these groups act as a source of pride and self-esteem. A specific mechanism is involved when we evaluate a person as either “us” or “them” (in-groups or out-groups).

Social Categorisation: Remember earlier I mentioned that stereotypes lead to social categorisation? Us humans like to categorise things, put labels on stuff, establish order and structure; it helps us understand and identify our surroundings. Often we justify our actions by reference to the norms of whatever group we belong to. Social categories could include employment roles like teacher, plumber, or cab driver; they could be ethnic groups like black, white, Latino or Asian.

Social identification: when you adopt the identity of the group you belong to, conforming to their norms and acting in a way you believe your group is supposed to act. Your self-esteem ties closely to your inclusion within a particular group.

Social Comparison: the most crucial part of understanding how this whole concept of social identity can tie into prejudice. Once we categorise our in-group, it’s only natural to start comparing it to other out-groups; To maintain or elevate our self-esteem, the group we belong to needs to compare favourably to others.

We have an inherent desire to distinguish ourselves from others based on group membership. Once we belong to our group, we seek ways to view our group positively, even at the expense of out-groups. Seeking positive distinctiveness for an in-group becomes the motivation for holding negative views or beliefs on others. I gave an example of this when talking about stereotyping; I mentioned that I heard the phrase “that’s something only white people do” said by people of colour; this is a direct example of the need to elevate your group by degrading others.

Will we ever be able to view each other equally?

The concepts outlined above paint a grim picture of Prejudice and discrimination; the behaviours seem so deeply ingrained in human psychology that I think they are inevitable. Perhaps the day when we all decide to come together and get along will be the day that aliens decide to invade Earth. No, I’m joking, but seriously though, I have no solutions, but if you do, feel free to let me know!



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Jason Maverick

Jason Maverick

Autistic and Opinionated | Instagram: Jason_d_maverick