Prejudice springs from several sources. It may arise from differences in social status and people’s desires to justify and maintain those differences. It may also be learned from our parents as they socialize us about what differences they believe matter between people. Our social institutions, too, may maintain and support prejudice. Consider first how prejudice can function to defend self-esteem and social position.

Social Inequalities: Unequal Status and Prejudice:

A principle to remember:  Unequal status breeds prejudice.  Masters view slaves as lazy, irresponsible, lacking ambition—as having exactly those traits that justify the slavery. Historians debate the forces that create unequal status. But after those inequalities exist, prejudice helps justify the economic and social superiority of those who have wealth and power. Tell me the economic relationship between two groups, and I’ll predict the intergroup attitudes. Upper-class individuals are more likely than those in poverty to see people’s fortunes as the outcomes they have earned, thanks to skill and effort, and not as the result of having connections, money, and good luck (Kraus & others, 2011).

Historical examples abound. Where slavery was practiced, prejudice ran strong. Nineteenth-century politicians justified imperial expansion by describing exploited colonized people as “inferior,” “requiring protection,” and a “burden” to be borne (G. W. Allport, 1958, pp. 204–205). Six decades ago, sociologist Helen Mayer Hacker (1951) noted how stereotypes of Blacks and women helped rationalize the inferior status of each: Many people thought both groups were mentally slow, emotional and primitive, and “contented” with their subordinate role. Blacks were “inferior”; women were “weak.” Blacks were all right in their place; the women’s place was in the home.Theresa Vescio and her colleagues (2005) tested that reasoning. They found that powerful men who stereotype their female subordinates give them plenty of praise, but fewer resources, thus undermining their performance.

This sort of patronizing allows the men to maintain their positions of power. In the laboratory, too, patronizing benevolent sexism (statements implying that women, as the weaker sex, need support) has undermined women’s cognitive performance by planting intrusive thoughts—self-doubts, preoccupations, and decreased self-esteem (Dardenne & others, 2007).  Peter Glick and Susan Fiske’s distinction between “hostile” and “benevolent” sexism extends to other prejudices. We see other groups as competent or as likable,  but often not as both. These two culturally universal dimensions of social perception—likability (warmth) and competence—were illustrated by one European’s comment that “Germans love Italians, but don’t admire them. Italians admire Germans, but don’t love them” (Cuddy & others, 2009). We typically respect the competence of those high in status and like those who agreeably accept a lower status. In the United States, report Fiske and her colleagues (1999), Asians, Jews, Germans, nontraditional women, and assertive African Americans and gay men tend to be respected but are not so well liked. Traditionally subordinate African Americans and Hispanics, traditional women, less-masculine gay men, and people with disabilities tend to be seen as less competent but liked for their emotional, spiritual, artistic, or athletic qualities.  Some people, more than others, notice and justify status differences.

Those high in social dominance orientation tend to view people in terms of hierarchies. They like their own social groups to be high status—they prefer being on the top. Being in a dominant, high-status position also tends to promote this orientation (Guimond & others, 2003). Jim Sidanius, Felicia Pratto, and their colleagues (Levin & others, 2011; Pratto & others, 1994; Sidanius & others, 2004) argue that this desire to be on top leads people high in social dominance to embrace prejudice and to support political positions that justify prejudice. Indeed, people high in social dominance orientation often support policies that maintain hierarchies, such as tax cuts for the well-off.

They prefer professions, such as politics and business, that increase their status and maintain hierarchies. They avoid jobs, such as social work, that, by virtue of their aid to disadvantaged groups, undermine hierarchies. And they express more negative attitudes toward minority persons who exhibit strong racial identities (Kaiser & Pratt-Hyatt, 2009). Status may breed prejudice, but some people more than others seek to maintain status. Social inequalities breed not only prejudice, but also mistrust. Experiments confirm that correlation: Groups receiving more unequal distributions exhibit less trust and cooperation (Cozzolino, 2011). Societies with the greatest income disparity tend also to exhibit less communal health and more anxiety, obesity, homicides, teen births, drug use, prisons, and police (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2011).


Prejudice springs from unequal status and from other social sources, including our acquired values and attitudes. The influence of family socialization appears in children’s prejudices, which often mirror those perceived in their mothers ( Castelli & others, 2007). Even children’s implicit racial attitudes reflect their parents’ explicit prejudice (Sinclair & others, 2004). Our families and cultures pass on all kinds of information—how to find mates, drive cars, and divide the household labors, and whom to distrust and dislike.


In the 1940s, University of California, Berkeley, researchers—two of whom had fled Nazi Germany—set out on an urgent research mission: to uncover the psychological roots of the poisonous right-wing anti-Semitism that caused the slaughter of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany. In studies of American adults, Theodor Adorno and his colleagues (1950) discovered that hostility toward Jews often coexisted with hostility toward other minorities. In those who were strongly prejudiced, prejudice appeared to be not specific to one group but an entire way of thinking about those who are “different.” Moreover, these judgmental,    ethnocentric    people shared certain tendencies: an intolerance for weakness, a punitive attitude, and a submissive respect for their group’s authorities, as reflected in their agreement with such statements as “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.” From those findings, Adorno and his colleagues (1950) surmised that these tendencies define an authoritarian personality that is particularly prone to engage in prejudice and stereotyping.

ore recent inquiry into authoritarian people’s early lives has revealed that, as children, they often face harsh discipline. Militant extremism, on both the political left and the right, shares some common themes, such as catastrophizing, desiring vengeance, and dehumanizing the enemy (Saucier & others, 2009). This extremism supposedly leads the individuals affected to repress their hostilities and impulses, which they project onto outgroups. Research into authoritarianism also suggests that the insecurity of authoritarian individuals predisposes them toward an excessive concern with power and status and an inflexible right-wrong way of thinking that makes ambiguity difficult to tolerate. Such people, therefore, tend to be submissive to those with power over them and aggressive or punitive toward those whom they consider lower in status than themselves.

In other words, “My way or the highway.” Scholars have criticized research into the authoritarian personality for focusing on right-wing authoritarianism and overlooking similarly dogmatic authoritarianism of the left. Still, contemporary studies of right-wing authoritarians by University of Manitoba psychologist Bob Altemeyer (1988, 1992) confirmed that there are individuals whose fears and hostilities surface as prejudice. Their feelings of moral superiority may go hand in hand with brutality toward perceived inferiors. Altemeyer also concludes that right-wing authoritarians tend to be “equal opportunity bigots.” Different forms of prejudice—toward Blacks, gays and lesbians, women, Muslims, immigrants, the homeless— do tend to coexist in the same individuals (Zick & others, 2008).

Moreover, authoritarian tendencies, sometimes reflected in ethnic tensions, surge during threatening times of economic recession and social upheaval (Cohrs & Ibler, 2009; Doty & others, 1991; Sales, 1973).  Particularly striking are people high in social dominance orientation and authoritarian personality. Altemeyer (2004) reports that these “Double Highs” are, not surprisingly, “among the most prejudiced persons in our society.” What is perhaps most surprising and more troubling is that they seem to display the worst qualities of each type of personality, striving for status often in manipulative ways while being dogmatic and ethnocentric. Altemeyer argues that although these people are relatively rare, they are predisposed to be leaders of hate groups.


Those who benefit from social inequalities while avowing that “all are created equal” need to justify keeping things the way they are. What could be a more powerful justification than to believe that God has ordained the existing social order? For all sorts of cruel deeds, noted William James, “piety is the mask” (1902, p. 264). In almost every country, leaders invoke religion to sanctify the present order. The use of religion to support injustice helps explain a consistent pair of findings concerning North American Christianity: (1) White church members express more racial prejudice than nonmembers, and (2) those professing fundamentalist beliefs express more prejudice than those professing more progressive beliefs (Hall & others, 2010; Johnson & others, 2011). Knowing the correlation between two variables—religion and prejudice—tells us nothing about their causal connection. Consider three possibilities:

  • There may be no connection. Perhaps people with less education are both more fundamentalist and more prejudiced. (In one study of 7,070 Brits, those scoring high on IQ tests at age 10 expressed more nontraditional and antiracist views at age 30 [Deary & others, 2008].)


  • Perhaps prejudice causes religion,  by leading people to create religious ideas to support their prejudices. People who feel hatred may use religion, even God, to justify their contempt for the other.


  • Or perhaps religion causes prejudice,  such as by leading people to believe that because all individuals possess free will, impoverished minorities have themselves to blame for their status.     If indeed religion causes prejudice, then more religious church members should also be more prejudiced. But three other findings consistently indicate otherwise.


  • Among church members, faithful church attendees were, in 24 out of 26 comparisons, less prejudiced than occasional attendees (Batson & Ventis, 1982).


  • Gordon Allport and Michael Ross (1967) found that those for whom religion is an end in itself (those who agree, for example, with the statement “My religious beliefs, are what really lie behind my whole approach to life”) express less  prejudice than those for whom religion is more a means to other ends (who agree “A primary reason for my interest in religion is that my church is a congenial social activity”). And those who score highest on Gallup’s “spiritual commitment” index are more welcoming of a person of another race moving in next door (Gallup & Jones, 1992).


  • Protestant ministers and Roman Catholic priests gave more support to the U.S. civil rights movement than did laypeople (Fichter, 1968; Hadden, 1969). In Germany, 45 percent of clergy in 1934 had aligned themselves with the Confessing Church, which was organized to oppose Nazi influence on the German Protestant Church (Reed, 1989). What, then, is the relationship between religion and prejudice? The answer we get depends on how we ask the question. If we define religiousness as church membership or willingness to agree at least superficially with traditional religious beliefs, then the more religious people are the more racially prejudiced. Bigots often rationalize bigotry with religion. But if we assess the depth of religious commitment in any of several other ways, then the very devout are less prejudiced—hence the religious roots of the modern civil rights movement, among whose leaders were many ministers and priests. It was Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce’s faith-inspired values (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) that, two centuries ago, motivated their successful campaign to end the British Empire’s slave trade and the practice of slavery. As Gordon Allport concluded, “The role of religion is paradoxical. It makes prejudice and it unmakes prejudice” (1958, p. 413).


Once established, prejudice is maintained largely by inertia. If prejudice is socially accepted, many people will follow the path of least resistance and conform to the fashion. They will act not so much out of a need to hate as out of a need to be liked and accepted. Thus, people become more likely to favor (or oppose) discrimination after hearing someone else do so, and they are less supportive of women after hearing sexist humor (Ford & others, 2008; Zitek & Hebl, 2007). During the 1950s, Thomas Pettigrew (1958) studied Whites in South Africa and the American South. His discovery: Those who confirmed most to other social norms were also most prejudiced; those who were less conforming mirrored less of the surrounding prejudice. The price of nonconformity was painfully clear to the ministers of Little Rock, Arkansas, where the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision was implemented. Most ministers privately favored integration but feared that advocating it openly would decrease membership and financial contributions (Campbell & Pettigrew, 1959). Or consider the Indiana steelworkers and West Virginia coal miners of the same era.

In the mills and the mines, the workers accepted integration. In the neighborhoods, the norm was rigid segregation (Minard, 1952; Reitzes, 1953). Prejudice was clearly not a manifestation of “sick” personalities but simply of the social norms.  Conformity also maintains gender prejudice. “If we have come to think that the nursery and the kitchen are the natural spheres of a woman,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in an 1891 essay, “we have done so exactly as English children come to think that a cage is the natural sphere of a parrot—because they have never seen one anywhere else.” Children who have seen women elsewhere—children of employed women—have expressed less stereotyped views of men and women (Hoffman, 1977). Women students exposed to female science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) experts likewise express more positive implicit attitudes toward STEM studies and display more effort on STEM tests (Stout & others, 2011). In all this, there is a message of hope. If prejudice is not deeply ingrained in personality, then as fashions change and new norms evolve, prejudice can diminish. And so it has.

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