Racism and Prejudice

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Racism and Prejudice

I don’t like principles…I prefer prejudices. (Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband, 1920)

No tree takes so deep a root as a prejudice. (American Proverb)

We should therefore claim…in the name of intolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. (Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945)

Perhaps the greatest insult that can be thrown at an individual is that he or she is a racist: that they discriminate between individuals based mostly on their race rather than any other factor. Indeed racism and prejudice against various groups of people has been responsible for some of the most terrible crimes of all time.

Psychologists have taken two very different approaches to racism. The first is to focus on the individual and their personality (intra-individual), attempting to explain their racist beliefs and behaviours in terms of their ideology. The second is to look at the group a person belongs to (interpersonal) and how that affects his or her behaviour.

Interpersonal behaviour means acting as an individual with some idiosyncratic characteristics and a unique set of personal relationships with others. Intergroup behaviour, on the other hand, means acting as a group member.

All social interactions could be depicted as falling somewhere along a continuum defined by the two extremes of interpersonal and intergroup behaviour. It could be a function almost entirely of an individual’s attitude, beliefs, values, personality or pathology. One factor is the clarity with which different social categories could be identified (black and white, man and woman). This will tend to locate the behaviour towards the intergroup end. Where the category differences are less relevant and observable, the behaviour is more likely to be interpersonal.


Researchers in this area have come up with a number of related concepts to attempt to explain racist and prejudice.

Authoritarianism: Authoritarians have been shown to avoid situations that involve ambiguity and are reluctant to believe that ’good people’ possess both good and bad attributes. However, they often appear less interested in political affairs, participate less in political and community activities and tend to prefer strong leaders.

There seem to be nine facets of authoritarianism:

Conventionalism: rigid adherence to conventional middle-class values.

Authoritarian submission: uncritical acceptance of authority.

Authoritarian aggression: a tendency to condemn anyone who violates conventional norms.

Anti-intraception: rejection of weakness or sentimentality.

Superstition and stereotypy: belief in mystical determinants of action and rigid, categorical thinking.

Power and toughness: preoccupation with dominance over others.

Destructiveness and cynicism: a generalized feeling of hostility and anger.

Projectivity: a tendency to project inner emotions and impulses outward.

Sex: exaggerated concern for proper sexual conduct.

There are various different related concepts to that of authoritarianism. These include conservatism, dogmatism and ethnocentrism. Some focus on thinking style, others on prejudice. Most argue that this ’attitudinal syndrome’ rather than a personality trait, occurs for both genetic/heredity and environmental factors. At the core of the theories is the idea of a generalized susceptibility to experience anxiety and threat when confronted by ambiguity or uncertainty.

Conservatism: A concept closely linked with authoritarianism is that of conservatism. Wilson (1973: 3) has claimed that conservatism assumes that conservative beliefs:

…arise as a means of simplifying, ordering, controlling, and rendering more secure, both the external world (through perceptual processes, stimulus preferences, etc.) and the internal world (needs, feelings, desires, etc.). Order is imposed upon inner needs and feelings by subjugating them to rigid and simplistic external codes of conduct (rules, laws, morals, duties, obligations, etc.), thus reducing conflict and averting the anxiety that would accompany awareness of the freedom to choose among them.

Closed-minded, dogmatic, authoritarian people are characterized by three things: 1. A strong desire to reject all ideas opposed to their own; 2. A low degree of connectedness among various beliefs; 3. Many more complex and positive ideas about things/issues they do believe in as opposed to those they don’t believe in.


The fundamental process of prejudice and a cornerstone of all intergroup theories is categorization, which is essentially the business of differentiating between us and them. Social categories simplify and order. However, a second very important and well-known process occurs thereafter which is to minimize within group differences. People perceive and think about those within the group they have categorized differently. This can then easily lead to discrimination. This is known as the perceived intragroup homogeneity effect. What is most frequently observed in perceived outgroup homogeneity is expressed in the ’they are all the same’ philosophy. We are different; they are the same.


The Contact Hypothesis states that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.

In order for this to be helpful contact that leads to friendship, at least four criteria must be present:

1 Equal status: both groups taken into an equal (social, occupational, educational) status relationship.

2 Common goals: both groups work on a problem/task and share this as a common goal, sometimes called a superordinate goal. They need some joint task that they are both interested in and motivated to achieve.

3 Acquaintance potential: the opportunity of group members to get to know each other as friends, and not merely as actors playing out social roles or as representatives of their social groups; the familiarity between group members involving the task or situation at hand. They need to get to know each other as individuals in a socially disclosive and safe situation.

4 Support of authorities, law or customs: some authority that both groups acknowledge and define social norms that support the contact and interactions between the groups and members. That is, be in a society that approves of friendship formation.

Prejudice and stereotyping is, however, only reduced if three criteria are met. First, the minority group members’ behaviour is not (totally) consistent with their stereotype. Second, that contact between group members occurs often and in a variety of social contexts. Third, that the minority members are perceived as typical (real members) of their cultural group.

Indirect intergroup contact includes (a) extended contact: learning that an ingroup member is friends with an outgroup member, (b) vicarious contact: observing an ingroup member interact with an outgroup member, (c) imagined contact: imagining oneself interacting with an outgroup member, and (d) parasocial contact: interacting with an outgroup member through the media.


Duckitt, J.(1992). Psychology and prejudice: A historical analysis and integrative framework. American Psychologist, 47, 1182—1193.

Pettigrew, T.F., & Meertens, R.W. (1995). Subtle and blatant prejudice in Western Europe. European Journal of Social Psychology, 25, 57—75.

Wilson, G.D. (Ed.). (1973). The psychology of conservatism. London: Academic Press.