David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Reducing Prejudice *


Some people think that we cannot do anything about prejudice. However, social psychologists have discovered ways of reducing prejudice.

One of the first ways explored was direct contact between majority and minority group members. This was the major reason for school desegregation. They thought that contact between various groups would reduce prejudice. However, it did not always work. When emotions run high – as with desegregation forced by the courts – contact can increase prejudice.

Equal status and a common goal

help us to form closer relationships

and to respond to people as individuals

rather than merely as members of an outgroup.

Not just any contact will do. Prejudice will be reduced only under certain conditions. With decades of research, social psychologists have discovered some of these conditions.

Why are these situations successful? First, people who have prejudices tend to stereotype the objects of their prejudice. A stereotype is an oversimplified image of people in a particular group. We tend to divide people into categories of "us" and "them". Stereotypes tend to isolate the others as different from "us". We assume that all members of a particular group fit that category. We insult and limit them by forcing them into a small, warped little "box". Even though the overall stereotype may be demeaning, those who are stereotyped find it is easiest to conform to these expectations of others.

On the other hand, if we interact with "them" on an equal status basis to achieve common goals, we are more likely to see that they are very much like "us". The more we perceive them to be like "us", the more difficult it is to be prejudiced against them.

Equal status and common goals have been used with the jigsaw method in classrooms. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, but each child only has a few parts of the puzzle. To complete the puzzle, each child has to share what s/he has with the others.

In the jigsaw classroom, children are formed into working groups to learn about a particular topic. Each child in the group is given a different portion of information about the topic. They need to teach their information to others in the group, so it forms a meaningful whole. This enables the group to understand the whole lesson.

While this is happening, the children start to see others as capable and worthwhile people. Not only does this reduce prejudice, it increases interaction and develops both empathy for others and increased self-esteem.

Prejudice is also reduced when people are shown how our democratic values of equal opportunity and fair treatment conflict with stereotyping others. In some psychological studies, people were forced to confront the inconsistency between the positive values of equality and freedom that they hold and their negative perceptions of outgroup members. When their inconsistencies were shown by their contradictory statements on a questionnaire, this often reduced their prejudices.

Likewise, prejudice is more likely to be reduced, when people strongly condemn prejudices like racism, ageism, sexism and others. When public norms against various forms of prejudice are more prominent, this can reduce discrimination. Making the voice of our democratic ideals heard is important in combating stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination.

When we feel threatened by any group, we tend to see all of "them" as homogeneous, faceless outsiders. With this negative stereotype, we refuse to associate with "them". However, if we associate with "them" – under the conditions mentioned previously – we are more likely to see their faces. In turn, we will become more aware of the person behind the face. As we do, we perceive them more as being "one of us". Although we may or may not like all the qualities we see, it is very hard to be prejudiced against "us".

* Adapted from Robert S. Feldman’s Social Psychology, Prentice Hall Publishers, 1998, pages 110-111.

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