The Psychosocial Origins of Prejudice

Credits to Targeted Individuals for the Image

Fishbein (2002) defined prejudiced attitudes as irrational, unjust or intolerant dispositions towards other groups and are often accompanied by stereotyping (p. 38). He likewise contended that people’s evolutionary heritage has been susceptible to such prejudgment against members of other groups. Furthermore, Allport (1979) adhered that prejudice arises from prejudgment when one refuses to acknowledge facts that are contradictory to one’s pre-established beliefs.

While socio-political and biological explanations have provided many reasons for the prevalence of prejudice and discrimination, it would also be worth taking into account the normative and psychosocial explanations for such behavior. As human beings tend to define themselves in the context of group membership, their inner motivations and their own moral assumptions, it would be helpful to look at and examine these areas in the light of further understanding the nature and dynamics of prejudice and discrimination.

Several evidences may be able to prove the veracity of Fishbein’s (2002) claims. Available historical documents tend to indicate how past prominent figures possess such self-righteous notions of one’s group, and which has undeniably left an enormous consciousness of the civilizations that followed the examples and theories of these prominent figures. One of the most influential ancient philosophers – Aristotle divided the human race between the civilized Greeks and the Barbarians; David Hume and Immanuel Kant both asserted of the inherent inferiority of the Negroes; the Holy Roman Empire became the epitome of superior race and governance, further marginalizing other groups and cultures that it has conquered; the flourishing organized religions – such as Christianity and Islam presented salvation in the context of believing and unbelieving; and the ancient Judaic practices were founded in the belief of God’s preference to Israel over the “Gentile” nations (James, 2008).

The divisions brought by these distinctions have fostered ethnocentric attitudes of the people. Such attitudes were even encouraged by governments in almost all states of the world – where the most self-effacing effort to be cordial with foreign nations became an excuse for persecution due to betrayal or treason. As a matter of fact, the Holocaust during the Nazi era utilized such ethnocentric ideals – in the guise of patriotic sentiments, in order to justify their claims for dominance and annihilation. In theUnited States of America, the predominant notions of white superiority became the rational claim for slavery, and in spite of efforts to combat the worst forms of discrimination and racism, skin-color prejudices remain to be a major issue in the nation’s political, economic and social sphere.

True enough, the worst forms of discrimination stemmed from such prejudicial biases: in the past, people with mental illness were persecuted and shunned, due to beliefs that they were possessed with unclean spirits, or that because of their mental incapacitation, they are likewise devoid of feelings, and thus could not qualify as a human being worthy of decent treatment; women had to fight in order to exercise their political rights – feminist movements had to spring in order to combat machismo in almost all aspects of daily life, due to the early belief that men – owing to their physical prowess and perceived intelligence, were stronger beings than women. Indeed, while President Barack Obama has become the beacon of racial justice and racial equality, we have yet to see a female President of theUnited States of America.

Nonetheless, prejudices are commonly discussed in the context of racial disparity for it has been one of the most prevalent sources of pre-judgment notions – particularly among the Western culture (Devine, Plant & Blair, 2001: 198). This was basically due to the aforementioned discussion on Nazi dominance and Negro slavery, and the impact of such events to the social consciousness of the people worldwide.

Perhaps, there could never be a fictional literature that would provide deeper meaning to the effect of prejudices and stereotypes than Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eyes (1970). Racial prejudice has been the core theme of the novel, and the main character struggled to be free from being a victim of the society’s prejudicial opinions by adopting the same perspectives for which she was scrutinized. This only goes to show how prejudicial notions adopted through socialization could provide an enormous impact to individual consciousness and development.

One of the classic theories on prejudice adhered that prejudice is actually a personality disorder, characterized by authoritarian and righteous opinions of oneself. Like John Locke, Allport (1979) adhered that a person is born tabula rasa – that is a blank sheet, and is therefore not prejudiced. However, upon learning, socialization and experience, prejudgments were gradually acquired. As the individual refuses to acknowledge the influx of facts that are incompatible with his/ her own preconceptions, s/he becomes prejudiced. This personality disorder seeks to undermine the real value of equality among beings and adopts a false sense of identity and self worth – that is basically in conjunction to his/ her perceived inferiority of the others. Allport (1979) further mentioned that to a certain extent, as prejudice leads to stereotyping, it eventually becomes a “convenient scapegoat” for the problems confronted by the group and the individual. For instance, a feeling of community insecurity might be easily attributed to the presence of a substantial number of minority groups in the area – even when there is no concrete evidence of such assumption. Those in the majority would then regard the minority group as the threat or the source of conflict. Nobody is spared in this assumption – even children.

Scapegoats have originated from the ancient Hebrew tradition depicted in the Book of Leviticus in the bible (Lev. 16:1-22, New International Version). The Israelites purged their sins by an offering of a beast – commonly a goat. They believe that their sins transfer from this offering and hence they are free of sins, and hence guilt once more (Stephan& Stephan, 2000: 35). Thus in the same manner as one group blames the other for their own setbacks and mistakes, due to the prejudicial notions of superiority, they are “purged of guilt” and become utterly blameless for the unfortunate events that may have transpired. This course of action was labeled by Sigmund Freud, on his famous account on psychoanalysis and defense mechanisms as “projection” – an adaptive defense mechanism that aims to point out the blame, and hence the aggressive behavior towards the others.

Though prejudice may result to some minor personal discomfort, such feelings may escalate to resentment, avoidance, discrimination, physical harm and ultimately, extermination (Fishbein, 2002). In order to address this, the society must be cognizant of the sources of such discomfort and prejudices and look at the possible explanations or rationalizations that people usually employ in the formation of such pre-conceived notions. Devine, Plant, and Blair (2001) discussed these rationalizations as a theory of integrated threat, which the majority groups may feel towards the minority. These threats may be realistic or symbolic, inter-group anxieties, or composition of negative stereotypes (Devine, Plant & Blair, 2001: 200). The dominant group may feel threatened for the increasing number of the minority, thus regarding them as competitors to the limited resources and opportunities in their respective communities. They may also feel – within the realm of their moral consciousness that they are right, and that the values presented by their counterpart group are incompatible with the values that they uphold. In this particular instance, it would be difficult to assert the values of equality and human dignity, because their perceived “rightness” is already founded on their own conception of morality.

On the other hand Lawrence Blum (2002) defined prejudice and discrimination into two basic referents: inferiorization and antipathy. Like Allport’s assumption, Blum (2002) suggested that prejudices are largely made in order to emphasize one’s superiority over the other, and in providing such emphasis hostility and hatred become the resulting factors.

Right now, with the increasing awareness of the social constructs of the major perils of prejudices and ethnocentrism, institutions become more conscientious in their policies and course of actions. Principles of non-discrimination were applied to workplaces and minority groups were gradually provided with increasing rights to be afforded with welfare services, similar to the majority group. However, the stream of consciousness remains. With the passing of cultural and social heritage comes an imminent desire for superiority and self-righteous predispositions. Though prejudicial biases are gradually earning its just merits as social taboo, covert actions and thoughts against members of the “other” group are becoming increasingly rampant. Color-blind ideals are said to be one of the very foundations of such covert prejudices and discriminations, notably in the lines of ethnicity and skin color. Increased conscientization efforts may prove to be effective. However, as long as self-interests and preservation remain to be the paramount concern of humanity, prejudices would keep on becoming an “inherent” aspect of humanity and society.


Allport, Gordon. The Nature of Prejudice. MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979

Devine, Patricia G., Plant, E. Ashby & Blair, Irene V. “Classic Contemporary Analyses of Racial Prejudice.” Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Intergroup Processes. Ed. Rupert Brown & Sam Gaertner. MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 2001

Fishbein, Harold D. Peer Prejudice and Discrimination: The Origins of Prejudice. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2002

James, Michael. “Race.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 28 May 2008. Accessed from, 05 February 2010

Kinder, Donald R. & Sears, David O. “Prejudice and Politics: Symbolic Racism versus Racial Threats to Good Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 414-431 (1981). American Psychological Association. Accessed from, 05 February 2010

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye.New York: Vintage Books, 2007

Stephan, Walter & Stephan, Cookie White. “An Integrated Threat Theory of Prejudice.” Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination. The Clarent Symposium on Applied Psychology.New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2000.