The Psychology of Prejudice and Racism

How do we define prejudice and racism?

u Prejudice and racism both refer to a negative view of one group of people based solely on their membership in that group. Racism is a specific form of prejudice, involving prejudicial attitudes or behavior towards members of an ethnic group. The definition of race is somewhat variable but commonly refers to an ethnic group originating on a specific continent, such as people of African, European or Asian descent.

An anti-Irish political cartoon
Anti-Irish political cartoon titled ‘The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things’ by Thomas Nast

What is stereotyping and how does it relate to social prejudice?

Stereotyping goes hand in hand with prejudice. The term stereotype as used in social science was first introduced by the journalist Walter Lippman in 1922. Previously the term had been used in the printing business. When we stereotype people, we attribute a series of traits to them based on the one trait that signals their membership in a particular group. Common contemporary stereotypes are that Asians are hardworking and studious, Hispanics are macho, and that librarians are introverts. By definition, stereotypes are limiting and disregard people’s individuality. They also lend themselves to negative and derogatory assumptions. When that happens the stereotype blends into prejudice.

How does our tendency to categorise lend itself to stereotyping?
The tendency to classify our experience into categories is a fundamental and universal aspect of human cognition. We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly. If we did not create categories, our entire life would be a buzzing mass of confusion. In social categorisation, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.

Is in-group chauvinism natural?
Some capacity for favoritism of one’s own group over others appears to be a natural human tendency. In many studies, people attribute more positive traits to their own group than to other groups. This has been demonstrated cross culturally. In 1976 Marilynn Brewer and Donald Campbell published a survey of 30 tribal groups in East Africa. Their subjects had been asked to rate their own and other tribes on a series of traits. Twenty-seven of the 30 groups rated their own group more positively than any other group. In-group favouritism or chauvinism can also be created in experimental research. In a series of classic studies published in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif and their colleagues recruited a group of 12 year old boys to attend a summer camp. The boys were divided into two teams which were then pitted against each other in competitive games. Following these games, the boys very clearly displayed in-group chauvinism. They consistently rated their own team’s performance as superior to the other team’s. Furthermore 90% of the boys identified their best friends from within their own group even though, prior to group assignment, many had best friends in the other group.

A photo of a black man and a white woman
Black and White

How do we reduce social prejudice?
Given our diverse and multi-ethnic world, it is of great importance to understand ways to reduce social prejudice. In the 1950’s, Gordon Allport introduced the intergroup-contact hypothesis. In this view, intergroup contact under positive conditions can reduce social prejudice. The necessary conditions include cooperation towards shared goals, equal status between groups, and the support of local authorities and cultural norms. Considerable research since then has supported these ideas. In a 2003 review, Stephen Wright and Donald Taylor also noted the effectiveness of identification with a super-ordinate group. In other words, different groups can come together as part of one overarching group, for example as part of one community or of a common humanity.

Do cross-group friendships reduce social prejudice?
Positive emotional experiences with members of different groups can also reduce negative stereotypes. Having close friends from different groups is especially effective in this regard. There may be several reasons for this. For one, it is near impossible to hold onto a simplistic, negative stereotype of someone you know well. Secondly, a close relationship promotes identification with the other person and of the groups they belong to. In other words, your relationships with other people become part of who you are. This is referred to as including the other in the self, a notion introduced by Stephen Wright, Arthur Aron and colleagues.

By Lisa J. Cohen, Ph.D.

This blog was adapted from Cohen’s book ‘Handy Psychology Answer Book’, published by Visible Ink Press. The book has a subchapter on Prejudice and Racism.


Brewer, M.B. & Campbell, D. (1976). Ethnocentrism and Inter-Group attitudes: East African Evidence. New York: Sage Publications.

Brown, R. (2000). Group Processes, 2nd Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Wright, D. & Taylor, D.M.(2009). “The social psychology of cultural diversity: Social prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination,” The SAGE Handbook of Social Psychology, Concise Student Edition. M. Hogg & J. Cooper (Eds.), Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, pps. 361-387.

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