Theoretical Approaches to the Formation of Prejudice

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When people initially gather as members of a new group, people postulate a polite attitude. One would not want to upset others or giving them a negative impression. Each and every person in that particular group would wonder whether or not he or she would be accepted. Simple and not complex topics and ideas would be plat formed and the group tries to establish its purpose and identity. Getting together can either be smooth and pleasant or the other way. People are kept strangers by prejudices when they meet. Theoretically, Allport 1954 identified six different levels of explanation to prejudice namely historical, socio-cultural, situational, personality, phenomenological and emphasis or earned reputation. In this essay, I am going to define key terms and discuss all these theoretical approaches to the formation of prejudice.

Definition of Terms

Prejudice is defined as bias which devalues people because of their perceived membership of a social group. Adams, D. 2010. While Armstrong, M. M. 2000 and others extracted the definition of prejudice from English Dictionary as a feeling, favourable or unfavourable, towards a person or thing, prior to or not based on actual experience. Allport, 1954, defined prejudice as “an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization directed towards a group as a whole or towards an individual because he is a member of that group. It may be felt or expressed.” Although the wording differs in these definitions, in simpler terms, “prejudice is a favourable or unfavourable feeling towards people based on the social group membership. Although logically correct, including favourable in the definition is, however, not fully agreed upon. For example Gordon Allport 1954, in his classical analysis of prejudice, asked students to write down their attitude towards various ethnic groups, with no suggestion that could lead them towards negative reports. He found that they reported eight times as many antagonistic attitudes as favourable ones.” Akrami, N. 2005. Therefore the general points of agreement of what prejudice is, are to be focused upon.

According to Akrami, N. 2005, the theoretical approaches to the study of the causation of prejudice can be distinguished within psychological research. He went on to say the cognitive approach suggests that prejudice is a function of cognitive processes where stereotypic information about social group, stored in memory, is automatically activated and affect people’s judgments and behavior towards members of the target group. Akrami also put it clear when he stated that, “The personality approach suggests that prejudice is a function of people’s personality, characteristics while social psychological approach emphasizes people’s group membership and group identification as the major source of causation.

Ashmore and DelBoca, 1981. suggested that prejudice can be summarized by three approaches and these are psychodynamic, socio-cultural and the cognitive. Hamilton and Sherman, 1994 had also the same sight as Ashmore and DelBoca. Psychodynamic aspect is argued to account for motivational and personality causation to prejudice, while socio-cultural emphasizes social group thinking and inter group attitudes and cognitive highlights the significance of information processing, stereotype activation and application aspects of prejudice. Ashmore and DelBoca, 1981. Differently, Allport illustrated six theoretical approaches while Armstrong, M.M. and Nyamuda, P also focused on six which shall be my concern in this discussion.

As much as personality psychologists consider prejudice and intergroup conflict to be a matter of personality, social psychologists regard it as a social psychological phenomenon. There is, thus, large amount of social psychological researches that has examined prejudice and inter group conflict. Interestingly the idea behind explanation of prejudice and intergroup conflict stem, more or less, from the same source as the personality explanation- Allport, (1954). Allport supported the group membership and categorizes other people into in-groups and out-groups. In general terms, prejudice needs to be viewed as a process within a set of relationships, rather than a state or characteristic of particular people (Abrams and Houston, 2006; Abrams and Christian, 2000

When exhibiting prejudice, people tend to paint everyone in a group with the same brush, meaning everyone who fits in a specific category are considered the same. Although we use the terms interchangeably, there is a subtle difference between the prejudice psychology definition and that of a stereotype.

Historical Emphasis

Historically, the total background of a conflict can lead to its understanding. The long history that tends to be behind each and every present day ethnic group is the cause. Argued by historians is that, while psychological approaches are enlightening they have narrow limits, because the search for understanding must reach into the broad social context within the personality is shaped. Diverse are the historical studies including those that stress the importance of economic diverse. “The historical studies are diverse, including those that stress the importance of economic determinants. These approaches attempt to show how racism was propagated to justify the economic exploitation of those who were considered inferior.” Armstrong, A. A and Nyamuda, P. 2001.


Like historians, Sociologists place principal weight on this theory. They emphasize the whole social context in which prejudiced attitude originates. Although different writers have different views that lead to conflict, some emphasized the density of the out-groups and in-groups concerned. The type of contacts that exist between groups is also said to be the context from which prejudiced attitude originates, while some writers prefer the upward mobility in out-groups and in-groups. According to Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory, individuals naturally strive for positive self-image, and social identity is enhanced by the process of categorising people into in-groups and out-groups. Thus, the need for social identity supports the formation of prejudice. For example, in his famous experiment with 15 year old boys from Bristol he gave boys the opportunity to reward other boys on the basis of artificial membership of a certain group. The boys were placed into cubicles on their own and they were required to allocate points to members of their own or out-groups. They could allocate points to themselves, to members of their own group, or to members of the out-group. The boys did not know who was in the other groups. The points were always awarded in favour of the in-group members first, even though in some cases giving points to both groups would have increased the rewards for everyone. Tajfel argues that this shows that discrimination arises as soon as people are categorized. He claims that there exists such a thing as a minimal group – awareness that there is a distinction between two groups is sufficient to cause a classification of one group as an in-group and the other group as an out-group. Belonging to an in-group seems to confer on members’ higher self-esteem. The ignorance and poor communication may also said to be the source of prejudice.

Situational Emphasis

Considering situational emphasis, several theories of prejudice emanates from forces around. “For example, there is a kind of atmosphere theory, where a child can grow up unaware of the historical dimension but most conform to the complex and inconsistent teaching that he receives. His prejudice is therefore is now a mirror image of what he sees around him.” Armstrong M. M. 2001. Adorno et al 1950, argued that some people were more prejudiced than others because of the way they had been brought up. According to their theory, which was heavily influenced by the writings of Fred, an authoritarian personality arises as a defensive reaction against over-strict parenting methods. Crisp, R. J. and Turner, R. N. 2014

Psychodynamic Emphasis

These are psychological theories that stress causation in human nature. They are in contrast to historical, cultural and other theories. Emphasis made by Hobbes, the philosopher, sought the roots of prejudice in the instincts of man. Three causes of quarrel which are competition, difference and glory, that is, competition makes men invade for gain while difference for safety and glory for reputation respectively. “Psychodynamic theory suggests that highly prejudiced people have lacked a secure and affectionate relationship with their parents. As a result, they grow up craving definiteness, finality, authority in all human relationships- and this pattern leads them to exclude and fear groups that seen less familiar and safe than their own” Armstrong, M.M. and Nyamuda P. 2001.

Emphasis on Earned Reputation

This theory advocates that there may bona fide differences between groups that provoke dislike and hostility. Armstrong, M. M. and Nyamuda, P. (2001). In addition, this theory attempts to explain prejudices by emphasizing on the influence of group and society. The group members having bad reputation are victimised by out-groups. For example, the Jews were made the victim of prejudicial aggression of other out-groups because some of their characteristics were not acceptable to the out-groups. This is an irrational attitude, this theory do not reflect well the causes of prejudice. It fails to explain rationally and objectively the fundamental basis of prejudice and hence, it is partial and irrational. This theory also fails to explain the individual aspect of prejudice as though prejudice grows within our surroundings; it dwells in the minds of human beings.


One’s response to the world conforms to his or her definition of the world. This approach highlights that a person conduct stems out of his view or the situation he is conformed with. . Armstrong, M. M. and Nyamuda, P. (2001). Whether or not in our country we are at the receiving end, racism has influenced our behaviour. The social aspect of prejudice from age to age indicates that it is a social phenomena. The conflict aspect of prejudice is based on political, economic or religious consideration, which may motivate a person to be aggressive, displace his aggression and become prejudiced towards the out-group.

Biological Emphasis

Some psychologists believe that prejudice can be inborn. They believe that some people are just naturally more prejudiced than others, regardless of how they were raised, educated, and interacted socially. The socio-biologist, Rushton Philippe, in his theory states that prejudice towards others is a result of evolution. He said people are programmed to bias against others unlike themselves based on ‘survival of the fittest’. They want only their genes to be reproduced and passed on, thus wanting them to suppress others who are not in the ‘in-group’. This primarily deals with racial and ethnic prejudices. Biologically, prejudice formation are controversial, they are based in other accepted scientific theories, such as evolution. Still, while they may seem to somewhat explain why prejudice exists in some people and not in others, biology has not been proven to be a good predictor of prejudicial behavior.

Additionally, there are a few social explanations for the existence of widespread prejudice. One of these is based in social norms. Social norms may or may not be accepted by the society officially or unofficially agrees is ‘normal’ for everyone; they are often unspoken laws by which we all abide. For example, a person wouldn’t usually wear two totally different shoes or go yelling through a library, it would be considered ‘weird’ because it broke the social norms we all live by. Prejudice works the same way.

Often whole societies can be prejudiced against outsiders of any type. Being prejudice against, having dislike and/or distrust for, and mistreating anyone seen as different might be a social norm; something that a member of the society does just because it’s what they’re ‘supposed to do’.

Another social theory of prejudice formation is called Realistic Conflict Theory. This theory is based on the idea that in some cases, different groups are in competition for limited resources, such as food, water, and money. They then band together, based on their ethnic heritage, to take what they believe should be theirs. As of late this has shown itself in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ happening in Eastern Europe.

Psychoanalytical Emphasis

Psychoanalysis and clinical findings pointed out that over prejudiced persons have repressed their hostility too much and they are dominated by castration anxiety and anal traits. Allport in his Kurt Lewin Memorial address remarked that sources of prejudice have been taken to be by some to belong to individual psychology. He says prejudice is a function of collective group structure and cannot be understood as personality dynamics.

Although, diverse theories developed, the discussions lead us to conclude safely that the underlying causes of prejudices are multidimensional. This is as discussed above after prejudice was defined although deferent authors have deferent versions but leading to the same conclusion.

Evolved Prejudice

Prejudice is associated with discrimination, this means that the active and explicit exclusion and derogation of minority groups based on preconceived and unfounded judgments. This type of discrimination do exists, but it is in no way justified by the presence of evolved prejudices. However, discriminate sociality is an integral part of group living, as different individuals afford different threats and opportunities. Kurzban R, Leary MR (2001). For instance, indiscriminate cooperation is inherently unstable because it is easily invaded by cheats and free-riders. Thus, cooperative groups cannot exist without mechanisms to recognize and punish non-cooperators. Boyd, R. and Richerson, P.J. (1992).


  1. Armstrong, M.M. and Nyamuda P. 2001, Psychology of Strangers, Zimbabwe Open University
  2. Akrami, N. (2005), Prejudice: The Interplay of Personality, Cognition and Social Psychology, Uppsala, Sweden
  3. Crisp, R. J. and Turner, R. N. (2014), Essential Social Psychology, 3rd Edition, Sage Publications, London. Page 235
  4. Kurzban R, Leary MR (2001). ‘Evolutionary origins of stigmatization: the functions of social exclusion’. Psychological Bulletin. 127
  5. Robert Boyd & Peter J. Richerson (1992). ‘Punishment Allows the Evolution of Cooperation (or Anything Else) in Sizable Groups’, Ethology and Sociobiology.

Cite this paper

Theoretical Approaches to the Formation of Prejudice. (2020, Nov 27). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/theoretical-approaches-to-the-formation-of-prejudice/



What are the 3 types of prejudice?
The three types of prejudice are cognitive prejudice, affective prejudice, and behavioral prejudice. Cognitive prejudice refers to the beliefs and stereotypes held about a group, affective prejudice refers to the emotions and feelings towards a group, and behavioral prejudice refers to discriminatory actions towards a group.
What are the four sources of prejudice?
There is no definitive answer to this question as the sources of prejudice can vary depending on the individual and the situation. However, some possible sources of prejudice include prior experiences, personal beliefs, media influences, and peer pressure.
What are the theories of prejudice?
There are many theories of prejudice, but the two most prominent ones are the Social Dominance Theory and the Realistic Conflict Theory.
What methods or techniques can be used to reduce prejudice?
The book is appropriate for high school students and above.
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