What is Prejudice?

In common parlance, prejudice is often said to mean ‘to pre-judge’ someone or something. That is, it refers to the practice of forming an opinion or value of someone or something in the absence of direct experience of that person or thing. This meaning stems from the world’s Latin phrase praejudicare, which means ‘to judge before,’ i.e., before something that should or could be taken into account in forming the opinion, the judgment has been made.

Social psychology Opens in new window has provided many different definitions and conceptualizations of prejudice over the years. Despite this variety, contemporary social psychology at large follows Gordon Allport’s classic definion of prejudice from his 1954 book The nature of Prejudice:

Ethnic prejudice is an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group as a whole, or toward an individual because s/he is a member of that group. (Allport, 1954, p.9).

Thus, Prejudice is an aversive or hostile attitude towards a person who belongs to a group simply because s/he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group.

As Milner (1981) notes, this definition succinctly captures the five main features of almost all the different definitions of prejudice in mainstream social psychology:

Prejudices about individuals or groups are usually formed on the basis of the perceived differences of one or more characteristics or traits. These differences may be physical, sexual, racial, national or religious, or related to such particulars as language, accent, social status, or age.

In other words, any characteristic that in some way sets a person or group apart from the others, is the potential basis of categorization which may lead to prejudice.

Prejudice is not limited to the negative attitudes toward the specific racial, ethnic or religious group. All kinds of social groups can also be the target of prejudice, such as the disabled people, women or elderly.

Prejudice is ultimately based on the exaggerated notion that members of ‘other’ social groups are very different from the members of our own social groups. Many social categories can be defined by the relatively objective characteristics like age, language, religion, skin color, etc.

A person who is prejudiced toward some social group tends to evaluate members of the group in a specific manner (usually negative) merely because they belong to that group. Their individual traits or behavior play little role; they are disliked (or liked) simply because of their membership in the group. Hence, prejudice is an attitude based on the information or knowledge which is either illogical, unrelated to reality, or is a distortion of the facts, and which is unjustifiably generalized to all the members of a group.

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When prejudice is understood as a special type of attitude, two important implications follow:

Finally, prejudice may involve the tendencies to act in negative ways towards those who are the object of prejudice. As social psychologist, Tajfel (1979) points out, once the people identify themselves as belonging to one group (the in-group), and others as belonging to the other (the out-group) regardless of the origin of this social categorization, they expect to find intergroup differences. At times, they will even create such differences, when such differences are non-existent in reality.

Prejudices initiate behaviors and actions that have clear and serious implication for the well being of the individuals, groups and the society at large. As a people, we need to be sensitive to the effects of prejudice, especially with the multiculturalism and regional diversity of the society we live in.

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