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A Look into Why Prejudice Continues to Occur

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A physical dispute between a group of Middle-Eastern men and Anglo-Australian lifeguards sparked a race riot in the typically peaceful beach suburb of Cronulla, Sydney. On December 11, 2005 around mid-day the riots began, which saw violence against individuals that appeared to be of Middle Eastern decent. During a football game in South Africa during 1991 a vicious riot broke out between the supporters of the Orlando Pirates and the Kaizer Chiefs. A dubious decision from the referee triggered the Orlando Pirates supporters to attack the Kaizer Chiefs fans, creating a riot that lead to the death of 42 supporters. In countries that include Iran, Iraq, and Algeria the testimony of a woman in court is legally worth half of a man’s testimony. These examples all share the common feeling of prejudice. To be prejudiced towards an individual is to ‘prejudge’ them. Therefore, prejudice is defined as the preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience (Brown, 2007). For example, forming a negative opinion of an individual based on their religion, race, gender, age, class or appearance (Myers, Abell, & Sani, 2014).

Despite social sanctions against it, prejudice continues to occur today. Social cognitive processes that include categorization, priming, belief perseverance and schemas play a major roll in the continuation of prejudice. Furthermore, explanations of why prejudice occurs that examine the context include social dominance theory, terror management theory, social identity theory, realistic conflict theory and ethnocentrism.

Priming is a subconscious form of memory in which one stimulus influences a person respond to succeeding stimulus. It refers to triggering representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task (Myers, Abell, & Sani, 2014). For example, researchers primed subjects with stereotypical words to describe old people that included forgetful and wrinkly but made sure not to mention speed and slowness. The individuals that had received this stimulus walked out of the lab much slower than the individuals that were the control and received a neutral stimulus.

Negative priming contributes to the continuation of stereotyping and prejudice in today’s society. For example, watching the news and reading articles that depict Muslims as being violent terrorist or individuals with tattoos as being unintelligent criminals can prime us to thinking and behaving negatively towards such groups of people when we encounter them. Therefore, it is of upmost importance to be self-aware and to continuously questions the stimulus we are being exposed to.

Categorization is the psychological process of perceiving an individual and then putting them in a social group based on the cues you have observed (Myers, Abell, & Sani, 2014). For example, if we see someone who is very tall me may assume that they play basketball or if we see someone who is overweight, we could categorize them as being lazy. However, both assumptions and groups we have attributed these individuals to could be false. Humans categorize information in order to learn, organize and store a large amount of information with the least amount of effort. However, when we categorize other individuals based off very few category relevant features prejudice is very likely to occur. For example, seeing a woman with short hair and categorizing her as lesbian. Therefore, in order to avoid prejudging an individual it is important to avoid categorizing a person based off limited information and physical traits alone. However, Social psychologists Ross, Lepper and Hubbard discovered that it is exceptionally difficult to abolish a false opinion once the individual has conjured up a rationale for it, even if evidence against their belief is present, this is called belief perseverance.

Furthermore, individuals tend to only seek out information that supports their beliefs and prejudices rather than looking further for information that may question and disprove their beliefs, this is known as confirmation bias. For example, an individual who beliefs that refugees are Muslim terrorists that are coming to Australia to take over is unlikely to seek out information that would disprove their belief.

Schema is a common word used in social psychology it is a concept and cognitive framework that psychologists employ to explain how we organize and interpret information about the world, people, and roles and how to act in certain situations (Myers, Abell, & Sani, 2014). Individuals use schemas everyday to help us understand how to behave in situations, predict the future and help of know what to do in difficult situations. Self schemas are information and knowledge about ourselves such as morals, values, interests etc. Role schemas are information about the behaviour and mannerisms of individuals in specific roles in society that included firemen, lawyers, teachers, father etc. An event schema is the information we store about the correct way to behave when attending events such as a high school reunion, date, or going to the gym. Person schemas is the information we gather when first meeting someone in order to better understand the person. For example, the schema for a possible friend you just met at university could include their appearance, personality, interests and behaviour. Schemas are exceptionally more easily changed during an individual’s childhood and become gradually more difficult to alter as a person becomes older (Myers, Abell, & Sani, 2014).

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While schemas are very useful and beneficial to us they also contribute to the continuation of prejudice by impeding the learning of new information and perceiving individuals incorrectly leading to the creation of stereotypes. For example, by consuming media that portrays a large amount of middle eastern men as terrorists or beautiful woman as being skinny without imperfections we can start to built false schemas about individuals and therefore prejudice is created. Thus, seeing all middle eastern men as terrorists and believing beautiful woman look the way the media has presented to us.

Other than social cognitive processes that explain why prejudice continues to occur, there are theories that explore the influence of the social environment, situation and context that also help us understand why prejudice occurs. Social dominance theory was created in 1999 by researchers Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto. Social dominance theory states that there is a hierarchy between social groups and the groups positioned higher have more power and access to resources. However, prejudice and discrimination can occur when a social group that is higher up in society strives to maintain their status or climb the hierarchal ladder by oppressing other social groups that may challenge their position (Sidanius, & Pratto, 1999). For example, institutionalised discrimination: private and public institutions providing better healthcare, jobs, education and financial assistance to those who are members of the dominant group. More extreme examples include the oppression of the Jewish and the Nazi regimes opposition during Hitler’s reign and the USSR under Stalin.

Social identity theory states that a person’s sense of self comes from the groups they are members of (Tajfel, 1982). The theory was introduced in 1979 by British social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner. Social identity theory also states that belonging to such groups that included sports teams, social class, gender and family was a main contributor to an individual’s sense of pride, self-esteem and social identity. We increase this feeling by enhancing the status of the group we are in and discriminating and holding prejudice beliefs against the out groups. For example, Manchester United are the best football team in the world! And Liverpool FC are a bunch of losers. Therefore, we create division amongst ourselves and start using language such as them and us once again using the process of categorization (Tajfel, 1982).

Terror management theory observes that throughout human’s life span we are constantly anxious and aware of our own death. The theory states that such anxiety is substantially decreased when an individual is a member of a cultural group; this membership increases sense of belonging, self-esteem and makes them feel like contributors to society (Myers, Abell, & Sani, 2014). Terror management theory also proposes that individuals are motivated to feel closer to their cultural group in order to feel as sense of immortality.

Terror management theory is a contributor to the continuation of prejudice because individuals will perceive out groups as a threat to their cultural-anxiety buffers and intern a threat to their lives. The most common examples are religious world views that include Christianity and Islam were the sense of immortality comes from serving one’s god correctly.

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own ethnic group and culture is superior to others, this is a main cause of division amongst group members of diverse religious groups, races and ethnicities (De, Gelfand, Nau, & Roos, 2015). Believing that you are superior to someone purely based on your heritage clearly has consequences of prejudice. For example, when Australia was colonised by the British in 1788. The British had very little understanding of Aboriginal culture and simple viewed them as wild savages as apposed to their superior culture. This intern led to a great deal of problems and unrest. Another ethnocentrism example in culture is individuals in Asian countries finding it silly and less effective that people from other countries use knives and forks rather than chopsticks.

When there are two or more groups that are trying to obtain the same limited resources prejudice, negative stereotyping and discrimination will occur this theory is known as realistic conflict theory (Sherif, 2010). The theory was created by Muzafer Sherif who is a psychologist that focused mainly on understanding groups and its members. The theory is supported by an experiment by Sherif called ‘The Robbers Cave’.

Unfortunately, prejudice continues to occur in society today however with research showing why this is occurring we can put together better and more effective ways to combat prejudice. By understanding our social cognitive processes that include priming, categorization, belief perseverance and schemas we can train people to be more empathetic and understanding towards individuals of other social groups. By allowing themselves to figuratively step into the shoes of others to gain a better understanding of their actions and reactions. Furthermore, theories that include social dominance theory, terror management theory, social identity theory, realistic conflict theory and ethnocentrism also provide an answer to why prejudice continues to occur despite social sanctions against it.

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A Look into Why Prejudice Continues to Occur. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from
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