Understand the nature of prejudice and the differences between prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination. Prejudice is distinct from stereotyping and discrimination. Social psychologists explore these distinctions and the different forms that prejudice assumes today.

Defining Prejudice:

Prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, racism, sexism—the terms often overlap. Let’s clarify them. Each of the situations just described involved a negative evaluation of some group. And that is the essence of prejudice:  a preconceived negative judgment of a group and its individual members. (Some prejudice definitions include positive judgments, but nearly all uses of “prejudice” refer to negative ones— what Gordon Allport termed in his classic book,  The Nature of Prejudice,  “an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization” [1954, p. 9].)  Prejudice is an attitude. an attitude is a distinct combination of feelings, inclinations to act, and beliefs.

It can be easily remembered as the ABCs of attitudes:  affect (feelings),  behavior tendency (inclination to act), and cognition (beliefs). A prejudiced person may dislike those different from self and behave in a discriminatory manner, believing them ignorant and dangerous.  The negative evaluations that mark prejudice often are supported by negative beliefs, called stereotypes. To stereotype is to generalize. To simplify the world, we generalize: The British are reserved. Americans are outgoing. Professors are absentminded. Here are some widely shared stereotypes uncovered in research:  

  • During the 1980s, women who assumed the title of “Ms.” were seen as more assertive and ambitious than those who called themselves “Miss” or “Mrs.” (Dion, 1987; Dion & Cota, 1991; Dion & Schuller, 1991). After “Ms.” became the standard female title, the stereotype shifted. It’s married women who keep their own surnames that are seen as assertive and ambitious (Crawford & others, 1998; Etaugh & others, 1999).
  • Public opinion surveys reveal that Europeans have had definite ideas about other Europeans. They have seen the Germans as relatively hardworking, the French as pleasure-loving, the British as cool and unexcitable, the Italians as amorous, and the Dutch as reliable. (One expects these findings to be reliable, considering that they come from Willem Koomen and Michiel Bähler, 1996, at the University of Amsterdam.)
  • Europeans also view southern Europeans as more emotional and less efficient than northern Europeans (Linssen & Hagendoorn, 1994). The stereotype of the southerner as more expressive even holds within countries: James Pennebaker and his colleagues (1996) report that across 20 Northern Hemisphere countries (but not in 6 Southern Hemisphere countries), southerners within a country are perceived as more expressive than northerners.

   Such generalizations can be more or less true (and are not always negative). The elderly are generally frailer. Southern countries in the Northern Hemisphere do have higher rates of violence. People living in the south in those countries do report being more expressive than those in the northern regions of their country. Teachers’ stereotypes of achievement differences in students of different gender, ethnic, and class backgrounds tend to mirror reality (Madon & others, 1998).  “Stereotypes,” note Lee Jussim, Clark McCauley, and Yueh-Ting Lee (1995), “may be positive or negative, accurate or inaccurate.” An accurate stereotype may even be desirable. We call it “sensitivity to diversity” or “cultural awareness in a multicultural world.” To stereotype the British as more concerned about punctuality than Mexicans is to understand what to expect and how to get along with others in each culture.

“Accuracy dominates bias,” notes Lee Jussim (2012). “The social perception glass (of people judging others) is about 90 percent full.” The 10 percent problem with stereotypes arises when they are overgeneralized or just plain wrong. To presume that most American welfare clients are African A American is to overgeneralize because it just isn’t so. To presume that single people are less conscientious and more neurotic than partnered people, as did people in one German study, was wrong, because it just wasn’t so (Greitemeyer, 2009). To presume that people with disabilities are incompetent and asexual, as did Oregonians in another study, misrepresents reality (Nario-Redmond, 2010). To stigmatize the obese as slow, lazy, and undisciplined is inaccurate (Puhl & Heuer, 2009, 2010).

To presume that Muslims are terrorists, priests are pedophiles, and evangelicals hate homosexuals overgeneralizes from the worst examples of each.   Prejudice is a negative attitude;     discrimination is negative behavior.  Discriminatory behavior often has its source in prejudicial attitudes (Dovidio & others, 1996; Wagner & others, 2008). Such was evident when researchers analyzed the responses to 1,115 identically worded emails sent to Los Angeles area landlords regarding vacant apartments. Encouraging replies came back to 89 percent of notes signed “Patrick McDougall,” to 66 percent from “Said Al-Rahman,” and to 56 percent from “Tyrell Jackson” (Carpusor & Loges, 2006).

Other researchers have followed suit. When 4,859 U.S. state legislators received emails shortly before the 2008 election asking how to register to vote, “Jake Mueller” received more replies than “DeShawn Jackson,” though fewer from minority legislators (Butler & Broockman, 2011). Likewise, Jewish Israeli students were less likely to alert the sender to a misaddressed email that came from an Arab name and town (“Muhammed Yunis of Ashdod”) rather than from one of their own group (“Yoav Marom of Tel Aviv”) (Tykocinski & Bareket-Bojmel, 2009). however, attitudes and behavior are often loosely linked. Prejudiced attitudes need not breed hostile acts, nor does all oppression spring from prejudice.

Racism and sexism are institutional practices that discriminate, even when there is no prejudicial intent. If word-of-mouth hiring practices in an all-White business have the effect of excluding potential non-White employees, the practice could be called racist—even if an employer intended no discrimination. When job ads for male-dominated vocations feature words associated with male stereotypes (“We are a dominant engineering firm seeking individuals who can perform in a competitive environment”), and job ads for female-dominated vocations feature the opposite (“We seek people who will be sensitive to clients’ needs and can develop warm client relationships”), the result may be institutional sexism. Without intending any prejudice, the gendered wording helps sustain gender inequality (Gaucher & others, 2011).

Prejudice Implicit and Explicit >

Prejudice provides one of the best examples of our dual attitude system. We can have different explicit (conscious) and implicit (automatic) attitudes toward the same target, as shown by 500 studies using the Implicit Association Test ( Carpenter, 2008). The test, which has been taken online by some 6 million people, assesses “implicit cognition”—what you know without knowing that you know (Greenwald & others, 2008). It does so by measuring people’s speed of associations. Much as we more quickly associate a hammer with a nail than with a pail, so the test can measure how speedily we associate “White” with “good” versus “Black” with “good.” Thus, people may retain from childhood a habitual, automatic fear or dislike of people for whom they now express respect and admiration. Although explicit attitudes may change dramatically with education, implicit attitudes may linger, changing only as we form new habits through practice (Kawakami & others, 2000).

A  raft of experiments—by researchers at Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin (Devine & Sharp, 2008), Yale and Harvard universities (Banaji, 2004), Indiana University (Fazio, 2007), the University of Colorado (Wittenbrink, 2007; Wittenbrink & others, 1997), the University of Washington (Greenwald &  others, 2000), the University of Virginia (Nosek & others, 2007), and New York University (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999)—have confirmed that prejudiced and stereotypic evaluations can occur outside people’s awareness. Some of these studies briefly flash words or faces that “prime” (automatically activate) stereotypes for some racial, gender, or age group. Without their awareness, the participants’ activated stereotypes may then bias their behavior.

Having been primed with images associated with African Americans, for example, they may then react with more hostility to an experimenter’s (intentionally) annoying request.  Critics contend that the Implicit Association Test lacks sufficient validity to assess or label individuals (Blanton & others, 2006, 2009). The test is more appropriate for research, which has shown, for example, that implicit biases predict behaviors ranging from acts of friendliness to work evaluations (Greenwald & others, 2009). In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, both implicit and explicit prejudice predicted voters’ support for Barack Obama, and his election, in turn, led to some reduction in implicit prejudice (Bernstein & others, 2010; Payne & others, 2010). Keeping in mind the distinction between conscious, explicit prejudice and unconscious, implicit prejudice, let’s examine two common forms of prejudice: racial prejudice and gender prejudice.

-Racial Prejudice

In the context of the world, every race is a minority. Non-Hispanic Whites, for example, are only one-fifth of the world’s people and will be one-eighth within another half-century. Thanks to mobility and migration over the past two centuries, the world’s races now intermingle, in relations that are sometimes hostile, sometimes amiable. To a molecular biologist, skin color is a trivial human characteristic, one controlled by a minuscule genetic difference. Moreover, nature doesn’t cluster races in neatly defined categories. It is people, not nature, who label Barack Obama, the son of a White woman, as “Black.” Most folks see prejudice—in other people. In one Gallup poll, White Americans estimated 44 percent of their peers to be high in prejudice (5 or higher on a 10-point scale). How many gave themselves a high score? Just 14 percent (Whitman, 1998).


 Which is right: people’s perceptions of high prejudice in others, or their perceptions of low prejudice in themselves? And is racial prejudice becoming a thing of the past?  Explicit prejudicial attitudes can change very quickly. 

  • In 1942, most Americans agreed, “There should be separate sections for Negroes on streetcars and buses” (Hyman & Sheatsley, 1956). Today the question would seem bizarre, because such blatant prejudice has nearly disappeared.


  • In 1942, fewer than a third of all Whites (only 1 in 50 in the South) supported school integration; by 1980, support for it was 90 percent.
  • In 1958, 4 percent of Americans of all races approved of Black-White marriages—as did 86 percent in 2011 (Jones, 2011). Considering what a thin slice of history is covered by the years since 1942, or even since slavery was practiced, the changes are dramatic. In Britain, overt racial prejudice, as expressed in opposition to interracial marriage or having an ethnic minority boss, has similarly plummeted, especially among younger adults (Ford, 2008). African Americans’ attitudes also have changed since the 1940s, when Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark (1947) demonstrated that many African Americans held anti-Black prejudices.

In making its historic 1954 decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, the Supreme Court found it noteworthy that when the Clarks gave African American children a choice between Black dolls and White dolls, most chose the White. In studies from the 1950s through the 1970s, Black children were increasingly likely to prefer Black dolls. And adult Blacks came to view Blacks and Whites as similar in such traits as intelligence, laziness, and dependability (Jackman & Senter, 1981; Smedley & Bayton, 1978).

People of different races also now share many of the same attitudes and aspirations, notes Amitai Etzioni (1999). More than 8 in 10 in both groups agree that “to graduate from high school, students should be required to understand the common history and ideas that tie all Americans together.” Similar proportions in the two groups seek “fair treatment for all, without prejudice or discrimination.” And about two-thirds of both groups agree that moral and ethical standards have been in decline. Thanks to such shared ideals, notes Etzioni, most Western democracies have been spared the ethnic tribalism that has torn apart places such as Kosovo and Rwanda. 

Shall we conclude, then, that racial prejudice is extinct in countries such as the United States, Britain, and Canada? Not if we consider the 6,604 reported hate crime incidents during 2009 (FBI, 2008, 2009). Not if we consider the small proportion of Whites who would not vote for a Black presidential candidate. Not if we consider the 6 percent greater support that Obama would likely have received in 2008, according to one statistical analysis of voter racial and political attitudes, if there had been no White racial prejudice (Fournier & Tompson, 2008).  So, how great is the progress toward racial equality? In the United States, Whites tend to contrast the present with the oppressive past, perceiving swift and radical progress. Blacks tend to contrast the present with their ideal world, which has not yet been realized and perceive somewhat less progress (Eibach & Ehrlinger, 2006).


 Prejudice in subtle forms is even more widespread than blatant, overt prejudice. Modern prejudice often appears subtly, in our preferences for what is familiar, similar, and comfortable (Dovidio & others, 1992; Esses & others, 1993a; Gaertner & Dovidio, 2005).  Some experiments have assessed people ’s behavior toward Blacks and Whites. Whites are equally helpful to any person in need— except when the needy person is remote (for instance, a wrong-number caller with an apparent Black accent who needs a message relayed). Likewise, when asked to use electric shocks to “teach” a task, White people have given no more (if anything, less) shock to a Black than to a White person—except when they were angered or when the recipient couldn’t retaliate or know who did it (Crosby & others, 1980; Rogers & Prentice-Dunn, 1981). Thus, prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior surface when they can hide behind the screen of some other motive. In Australia, Britain, France, G Germany, and the Netherlands, blatant prejudice has been replaced by subtle prejudice (exaggerating ethnic differences, feeling less admiration and affection for immigrant minorities, rejecting them for supposedly nonracial reasons) (Pedersen & Walker, 1997; Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005a).

Some researchers call such subtle prejudice “modern racism” or “cultural racism.”  On paper-and-pencil questionnaires, Janet Swim and her co-researchers (1995, 1997) have found a subtle (“modern”) sexism that parallels subtle (“modern”) racism. Both forms appear in denials of discrimination and in antagonism toward efforts to promote equality (as in agreeing with a statement such as “Women are getting too demanding in their push for equal rights”).  We can also detect bias in behavior:   • To test for possible labor market discrimination, M.I.T. researchers sent 5,000 résumés out in response to 1,300 varied employment ads (Bertrand & M Mullainathan, 2003). Applicants who were randomly assigned White names (Emily, Greg) received one callback for every 10 résumés sent. Those given Black names (Lakisha, Jamal) received one callback for every 15 résumés sent.

  • Other experiments have submitted fictitious pairs of women’s resumes to 613 Austrian clerical openings, and pairs of men’s resumes to 1,714 Athens, Greece, openings and 1,769 American job openings (Drydakis, 2009; Tilcsik, 2011; Weichselbaumer, 2003). By random assignment, one applicant in each pair acknowledged, among other activities, volunteering in a gay-lesbian organization. In response, callbacks were much less likely to the gay-involved applicants. In the American experiment, for example, 7.2 percent of applicants whose activities included being “Treasurer, Gay, and Lesbian Alliance,” received replies, as did 11.5 percent of those associated with a different left-seeming group (“Treasurer, Progressive and Socialist Alliance”).
  • In one analysis of traffic stops, African Americans and Latinos were four times more likely than Whites to be searched, twice as likely to be arrested, and three times more likely to be handcuffed and to have excessive force used against them (Lichtblau, 2005).

  Modern prejudice even appears as a race sensitivity that leads to exaggerated reactions to isolated minority persons—overpraising their accomplishments, overcriticizing their mistakes, and failing to warn Black students, as they would White students, about potential academic difficulty (Crosby & Monin, 2007; Fiske, 1989; Hart & Morry, 1997; Hass & others, 1991).  It also appears as patronization. For example, Kent Harber (1998) gave White students at Stanford University a poorly written essay to evaluate. When the students thought the writer was Black, they rated it higher than when they were led to think the author was White, and they rarely offered harsh criticisms. The evaluators, perhaps wanting to avoid the appearance of bias, patronized the Black essayists with lower standards. Such “inflated praise and insufficient criticism” may hinder minority student achievement, Harber noted. In follow-up research, Harber and his colleagues (2010) found that Whites concerned about appearing biased, not only rate and comment more favorably on weak essays attributed to Black students, they also recommend less time for skill development. To protect their own self-image as unprejudiced, they bend over backward to give positive and unchallenging feedback.



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