10.3 Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination - Social Thinking

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

10.3 Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination
Social Thinking


After Chapter 10.3, you will be able to:

· Distinguish between stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination

· List the types of social inequality that can influence prejudice

· Compare and contrast ethnocentrism and cultural relativism

While stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination are terms that are related and often used together, they are very different concepts. Stereotypes are viewed as cognitive, prejudice as affective, and discrimination as behavioral. Stereotypes refer to the expectations, impressions, and opinions about the characteristics of members of a group. Prejudice reflects the overall attitude and emotional response to a group. Discrimination refers to differences in actions toward different groups.

Key Concept

· Stereotypes are cognitive

· Prejudices are affective

· Discrimination is behavioral

Note: Kaplan Test Prep does not endorse or encourage any of the stereotypes mentioned in this chapter; they are included only as examples.


Despite their negative connotations, stereotypes are fundamentally necessary to everyday life. In a psychological sense, the purpose of a stereotype is to make sense of a complex world by categorizing and systematizing information in order to better identify items, predict their behavior, and react. In the context of stereotyping what different items of furniture look like, how different types of stores operate, or how different cuisines taste, stereotypes are extremely useful in defining categories and determining what does or does not fit into that category. However, when stereotypes are used to develop prejudices toward others and to discriminate, they are being appropriated for negative uses.

In the context of sociology, stereotypes occur when attitudes and impressions are based on limited and superficial information about a person or a group of individuals. The content of stereotypes are the attributes that people believe define and characterize a group. The stereotype content model attempts to classify stereotypes with respect to a hypothetical in-group using two dimensions: warmth and competence. Warm groups are those that are not in direct competition with the in-group for resources; competent groups are those that have high status within society. The four possible combinations of warmth and competence are shown in Figure 10.8 and are associated with distinct emotions.

ImageFigure 10.8. Classifications of Stereotypes in the Stereotype Content Model Adapted from Fiske et al. (2002)

Paternalistic stereotypes are those in which the group is looked down upon as inferior, dismissed, or ignored. Contemptuous stereotypes are those in which the group is viewed with resentment, annoyance, or anger. Envious stereotypes are those in which the group is viewed with jealousy, bitterness, or distrust. Admiration stereotypes are those in which the group is viewed with pride and other positive feelings.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Stereotypes can lead to expectations of certain groups of individuals. These expectations can create conditions that then cause the expectations to become reality, a process referred to as self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, some medical students experience a self-fulfilling prophecy during their first days of surgery clerkship in medical school: During their first year in the wards, new students are stereotyped as being unable to quickly and efficiently throw knots during a surgery. With this knowledge in mind, these students are nervous to suture for the first time and may struggle with every step of the knot-tying process. This struggle validates the stereotype and thus completes the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stereotype Threat

In some social situations, a person might be concerned or anxious about inadvertently confirming a negative stereotype about their social group. This concern is known as stereotype threat. Unfortunately, the feeling of stereotype threat often results in a self-fulfilling prophesy: People experiencing stereotype threat often exhibit stress arousal and are preoccupied by monitoring their own performance on a task, and these distractions can then lead to reduced performance on the task. An example of a well-studied group that often experiences stereotype threat is women in mathematics. A study showed that women taking a math exam scored lower when the only other test takers in the room were men. The researchers concluded that when taking an exam with only men present, the female test subjects were more concerned about stereotype threat, and performed more poorly as a result of their concerns. Researchers theorize that stereotype threat may be a contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in certain careers and in academic performance.

Key Concept

Stereotype threat is concern or anxiety about confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. This may hinder performance, which may actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy.


From a social psychology approach, prejudice is defined as an irrational positive or negative attitude toward a person, group, or thing, prior to an actual experience with that entity. The process of socialization results in the formation of attitudes regarding our own groups and a sense of identity as an individual and a group member. Prejudice can form in response to dissimilarities among groups, races, ethnicities, or even environments. While racial and ethnic prejudices against individuals are at the forefront of most people’s minds, prejudices exist against objects and places as well. For instance, people have attitudes toward different regions of the country based on culture, weather, and history; which car manufacturers are the most reliable; what types of food are considered unhealthy; and even what types of animals make good pets. Prejudicial attitudes can run the gamut from hate to love, contempt to admiration, and indifference to loyalty.

Prejudices may be kept internally or shared with the larger community. Propaganda is a common way by which large organizations and political groups attempt to create prejudices in others. Propaganda posters often invoke messages of fear, and depictions of the target group are often exaggerated to an absurd degree.

Power, Prestige, and Class

There are a variety of social factors that influence prejudice. Three of the most important are power, prestige, and class. Power refers to the ability of people or groups to achieve their goals despite any obstacles, and their ability to control resources. Prestige is the level of respect shown to a person by others. Class refers to socioeconomic status. Social inequality, or the unequal distribution of power, resources, money, or prestige, can result in the grouping of haves and have-nots. Have-nots may develop a negative attitude toward haves based on envy Haves may develop a negative attitude toward have-nots as a defense mechanism to justify the fact that they have more.


Ethnocentrism refers to the practice of making judgments about other cultures based on the values and beliefs of one’s own culture, especially when it comes to language, customs, and religion. Ethnocentrism can manifest in many ways, from innocent displays of ethnic pride to violent supremacy groups. Because of this, ethnocentrism is closely tied to the previously discussed concepts of in-group vs. out-group biases and group conflict.

Cultural Relativism

In order to avoid ethnocentrism, the concept of cultural relativism has been employed by sociologists to compare and understand other cultures. Cultural relativism is the recognition that social groups and cultures should be studied on their own terms. When studying a culture, social relativism acknowledges that the values, mores, and rules make sense in the context of that culture, and should not be judged against the norms of another culture. In other words, while one group may follow a given set of rules (say, the dietary rules of kashrut or halal), cultural relativism holds that those rules should not be perceived as superior or inferior to those of other cultures—just different.


Discrimination occurs when prejudicial attitudes cause individuals of a particular group to be treated differently from others. While prejudice is an attitude, discrimination is a behavior. As prejudice typically refers to a negative attitude, discrimination typically refers to a negative behavior. It is also important to note that prejudice does not always result in discrimination. For instance, a person might have strong feelings against a particular race (prejudice), but may not express those feelings or act on them. As social inequality influences prejudice, the same idea applies to discrimination. The unequal distribution of power, prestige, and class influence discrimination.

Individual vs. Institutional Discrimination

Discrimination can be either individual or institutional. Individual discrimination refers to one person discriminating against a particular person or group, whereas institutional discrimination refers to the discrimination against a particular person or group by an entire institution. Individual discrimination is considered to be conscious and obvious, and can be eliminated by removing the person who is displaying the behavior. Sociologists have begun to stress the need to focus on institutional discrimination, as it is discrimination built into the structure of society, so it is far more covert and harder to extricate. Because it is part of society, it is perpetuated by simply maintaining the status quo.

The United States has a long history of institutional discrimination against myriad groups. Perhaps the most overt example was that of racial segregation that existed in the early to mid-twentieth century. Even today, there are still concerns of institutional discrimination against women, racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and certain religions.

MCAT Concept Check 10.3:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. What are the distinctions between stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination?

o Stereotypes:

o Prejudice:

o Discrimination:

2. List three types of social inequality that can influence prejudice:




3. What is the difference between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism?