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Psychological Perspectives on Prejudice

[This is the result of research I did in 1989. I just wanted to share it because I think it answers questions we all need the answers to. I certainly learned from doing this... ]

Prejudice is a personality trait which exists in all human beings in various degrees, from intense to tolerant. Due to the destructive nature of prejudice, there has been a great deal of research to determine what causes a human being to make an "unjustifiable, usually negative prejudgement" towards a group and its members. The majority of the research has been from the cognitive, social and humanistic perspectives; each relying on one another to provide a complete picture of prejudice.

The cognitive perspective in personality psychology explains traits in terms of the learning and thinking processes. In relationship to prejudice, the cognitive perspective centers on how we form our thinking towards other groups and develop prejudicial attitudes.

In order to simplify the world, human beings categorize. Since there are millions of observations a person will never make first hand, the tendency is to generalize based on the most memorable cases. This allows for misconceptions, the organization of information into the wrong categories, because when we encounter a new situation, we naturally try to fit it into an existing category.

Before categorization can begin, we must have words, which also overgeneralize. The label begins to take on more meaning than originally intended. Even a person's last name can conjure up ethnic assocations which in turn activate all of the other ethnic perceptions held by the individual hearing it. The essence of the person is lost, and instead the person is categorized.

The function of categorization is essential to human mentality; without it we would drown in chaos. The prejudgements we make are not necessarily wrong. They only become prejudicial when they are not altered or abandoned after exposure to new knowledge. People have a tendency to select certain experiences from memory, exaggerate them and interpret them into a prejudiced opinion. Since these opinions simplify life, they are not eager to let go of them. This makes prejudice difficult to guage, because a person will defend his attitude by providing a deceptive, yet plausible, excuse for it. No one readily admits his dislike or hatred for others without trying to justify it.

The cognitive processes of an intensely prejudiced person generally differ from those of a tolerant one. An intensely prejudiced person is given to two-valued judgements (good or bad, black or white), is less likely to admit ignorance and prefers his categories to be as definite and few as possible. The tolerant personality has greater skepticism toards broad categories, more readily admits ignorance and prefers differentiated, multiple categories.

How people interact with and influence each other is researched through a social perspective.In terms of prejudice, it tried to understand the important of belonging to groups and the inclination towards hostility against other groups.

Very early in life, a child understands that he is a member of particular groups, such as a gender, religious or ethnic group. The self and all the groups it has membership in, called ingroups, are considered precious and good. Likewise, those groups to which we do not belong, called outgroups, can be considered "bad." Ethnocentrism, the common condition of separateness from other groups, provides ease, least effort and promotes cultural pride. While it does not necessarily mean hostility towards the outgroup, having a common enemy does cement ingroup loyalties.

It is important to note that hate-prejudice could not exist without love-prejudice. A person must love his ingroups (ie., race, family, church) before he can define an outgroup to be wary of.

Once prejudice towards an outgroup is formed, it can be manifested in a sequence of degrees, from common to less common. The most common expression of prejudice is antilocution, the communication of prejudicial attitudes amongst ingroup members. This leads to avoidance, discrimination and physical attack on the outgroup. Finally, prejudice may culminate in the most horrifying degree possible, extermination of the outgroup, as in Hitler's Germany.

Antilocution depends upon stereotyping to gain strength. Stereotypes are exaggerated beliefs affixed to a category. They are images created by the individual to justify a prejudice, but not a full justification for rejection. Stereotyping acts as a justification for categorical rejection or acceptance, and a selective tool to maintain simplicity in perception and thought. Usually stereotypes grow from a grain of truth, in total defiance of all evidences against them. These myths are spread like an illness through the society, by word of mouth, cementing and allowing their dislike for the outgroup.

The humanistic perspective emphasizes the human capacity to choose and to allow our lives to grow to greater maturity and fulfillment. Applied to prejudice, it seeks to explain which needs are met by prejudicial atittudes. Generally, prejudice serves a functional significance for its bearer, existing not just as a matter of blind conformity.

Human beings cannot accept a situation without knowing a cause for it. When hardship arises, a scapegoat must be found immediately. Providing us with scapegoats is therefore one of the needs prejudice provides for when we feel anxious, fearful or angry. Even in the earliest civilizations, people felt that guilt and misfortune could be shifted from one man's back to another, known in modern times as projection. Another need prejudice helps to fill is self-esteem. One guaranteed way to maintain high self-esteem is by having someone to look down on. Stereotyped characteristics are, in some cases, a displacement of personality traits which ae undesirable. In studies of stereotypes of African Americans and Jewish Americans, it was found that people personify their id impulses (ie., immorality, aggression, laziness) in the African American stereotype, and their super-ego violations such as greed, in Jewish stereotypes. By seeing others in an outgroup as more evil than ourselves, our self-esteem is kept intact.

The force of economic insecurity or greed is a powerful catalyst for prejudice. Whether a person is protecting his livelihood, or trying to increase his fortune, prejudice is very handy. It can produce a reason for economic woes, or rationalize grabbing what does not belong to us. Greed itself can be easily justified by the prejudiced person. By creating a belief that the outgroup is less deserving or happier without the object of desire, the individual stands to gain from exploitation and control over the outgroup. When the outgroup is forced to work in degrading and low paying jobs, a financial gain is won. Having a group to look down on creates a comfortable status gain. Political and sexual gains are also possible from prejudicial greed and exploitation.

Guilt, fear, anger, anxiety, and greed are some of the most prominent, but not the only emotions for which prejudice serves a functional significance. The cognitive, social and humanistic perspectives rely heavily on each other to provide a full explanation of prejudice. It would seem that, considering how deeply interwoven prejudice is with the fabric of human psychology, it will always exist. Even the most tolerant person can never achieve the "virtue" of open minded thought because, in a cognitive sense, each new experience must be held up to the previous before it can be processed. Love of the ingroup and protecting the self image is only natural and necessary. Based on what has been learned about prejudice so far, human beings have a great deal to learn about each other and themselves before prejudice can be reduced.

written in 1989 by Eileen Parzek


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