Prejudice, Causes and Solutions *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Prejudice lumps together all members of an outgroup with a common and negative perception. Members of the outgroup are not judged as individuals. They are rejected solely on the basis of traits believed to be shared by all members of the group.


Prejudices can develop in several ways. The frustration-aggression hypothesis indicates that frustration is displaced from its original source to a scapegoat. A scapegoat is a nearby target that is easily identifiable and relatively powerless. Lower income white Americans – who feel exploited – find it hard to express their anger at their oppressors. Their anger is often displaced to those lower on the social scale than themselves – in this case, blacks.

In addition, extremely prejudiced people seem to share a cluster of personality traits – an authoritarian personality. Authoritarian people think of the world in rigid "either-or" categories. They are rigidly conventional and are hostile toward people who violate conventional values. They are preoccupied with power and toughness. They are submissive to authority and, in turn, are likely to bully those with less power than themselves. Destructive and cynical, these individuals fear, suspect and reject all outgroup members – even from fictitious groups. If you aren’t one of "us," you must be one of "them" – the enemy.

Others may be pressured into prejudice by conformity. If we associate with prejudiced people, we are more likely to conform to their prejudices rather than resisting them. In the South in the 1960s, many restaurant owners indicated that they personally did not mind serving blacks. However, they believed that their customers would not tolerate it. Likewise, children conform to the attitudes of their parents and their peers.


We tend to like others who are perceived to be similar. What similarities are more important? Racial similarities were explored in a series of psychological studies in the 1960s. Some subjects were given descriptions of people from another race who had similar attitudes. Other subjects had descriptions of people from the same race but with attitudes very different from their own. In general, those with similar attitudes were liked more than those of the same race.

If this related to contacts with real people, then merely educating people about the similarities between themselves and other groups should reduce intergroup tensions. This seemed to work to some extent with less intimate relationships – working or studying together. However, racial similarity is more important in intimate relationships – dating and marriage.

We need to remember that the studies were done with imaginary people and situations. There was also a subtle pressure in experiments for subjects to be unbiased. However, personal biases are more evident in real life. The study was repeated in 1974 with a little twist. New college students were asked about whom they would prefer as roommates in a dorm. Half were told that this was an imaginary situation, while the rest were told that these choices would be used to determine their real roommates. Racial factors were more important in the choice of actual roommates than the choice of imagined roommates. However, similarity of attitudes and beliefs was still important for both groups. It is easier to give "lip service" to racial equality than to actually practice it.

People tend to ignore information
that contradicts their deep-seated beliefs.

Many believed that desegregation in the 1950s would change prejudiced attitudes. This was only partially true. In addition, the campaign to educate the public and discredit racial myths through films and literature has failed. People – especially authoritarian people – are skillful at ignoring whatever contradicts their deep-seated beliefs.

However, there has been some progress. We know that when people from different groups share the same goals and cooperate to reach them, prejudice weakens. Where desegregation is limited only to mere contact, prejudices are not lessened. The contact must be interdependent and cooperative. Students need to have common goals.

Common goals are those that require the cooperation of all to achieve. Once achieved, their benefit is shared by all. Interracial contacts in some groups – student council, working teams, study groups – can reduce prejudice.

Unfortunately, these types of situations are relatively rare in our society. Even so, psychological studies among resident of housing projects, department store workers, and police officers have supported the same effect. When groups work together or live together in cooperative and nonthreatening situations, animosities lessen.

In 1978, psychologist Elliot Aronson and his associates have found an educational method for reducing intergroup prejudices – the jigsaw method. This works with cooperative classroom projects. Each student is given part of a project to learn and report to the rest of the group. Students were told they would be tested on all the material. Left on their own, they learned from one another, coaxed those who needed it, and assembled the information into a "whole picture." The results were striking. Even though some students took longer to realize the value of cooperation, most of them adapted well. Students from a variety of backgrounds found themselves cooperating and learning from one another.

However, this method works better with young children, who have not developed deep-seated negative beliefs. It is also difficult to use this method with large groups. Even so, it offers hope that education can help to reduce prejudices in our society.

* Adapted from Charles C. Morris’ Psychology: An Introduction, Prentice-Hall Publishers, 1990, pages 632-634.

Go back to listing of additional articles.

Go back to "A Line on Life" main page.