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Prejudice and Discrimination—The Psychology Behind It

Lynsey is from Scotland. She likes to write thought-provoking articles that challenge ideas and provide a talking point.

What is Prejudice?

Prejudice is the pre- judgement of an individual or situation before all of the facts are known. When a judgement is made because of a single reason, rather than after all of the information is gathered. In context for this article, prejudice is the pre-judgement of a person because of a single piece of their character i.e hair colour, eye colour, race, religion etc.

What is Discrimination?

Discrimination is when that prejudice affects the action taken towards the situation, or in this case, the person. There can be both positive and negative discrimination, as well as intentional and unintentional. So, someone could be given a job because they have blonde hair, and the interviewer likes blondes or the interviewer themselves is blonde, yet isn't aware of their tendency to allow that to influence them.

Either way, Prejudice and Discrimination exist. This article will look at the possible reasons behind this- and analyse the experiments and theories of 2 different Psychologists who tried to explain it.


Muzafer Sherif (1966) developed the “realistic conflict theory” based on the idea that the main cause of prejudice was:

1- A conflict of interests

2- That prejudice and discrimination had evolved from competition for scarce resources,

3- That competing groups often develop negative attitudes and stereotype the other group, which is used to legitimise any discrimination.

Experiment & Evidence

In 1954, Sherif tested his ideas during “The Robber’s Cave Field Experiment” which lasted 3 weeks. 22 boys from similar backgrounds, class, religion and age participated, and were split into 2 groups, each arriving at the camp a day apart.

The first stage began- In Group Formation. Each group was unaware of the others existence while they built up relationships within the group; taking part in team building activities with a common goal, and a requirement for communication. They created their own group names: the eagles and the rattlers. They were then gradually allowed to discover the existence of the other group, and had a tendency to claim camp facilities as their own, and also asked staff to arrange games and competitions between each of the groups.

In the second stage- Friction Phase- Sherif created friction by introducing competitions, with prizes of a group trophy and penknives to the winners. This caused arguments in the dining hall, with name calling and teasing from one group to the other. There was cabin raiding, and group flag burning, and when the eagles won the first contest, there was even theft of the prizes. The main point of this was to show that group conflict, thusly discriminatory behaviour arises because of competition for scarce resources.

In the third stage- Integration Stage- there was the introduction of a common goal for both groups, that they had to work together to achieve. Firstly, a blockage in the drinking water, which they worked together to resolve, then at the end were all happy that the water was back on. There was no name calling when waiting in the line for a drink. Secondly, in order to see a film, they had to raise some of the money themselves, and were able to arrange this among themselves.

By the time they left, the boys wanted to go home on the same bus and the leader of the rattlers, who had won some money, suggested using this to buy everyone a drink at a refreshment stop. This shows that the common goal had actually brought the boys back together again, and had reduced any prejudice, and reinforces the theory that competition can cause prejudice and discrimination.

I think the experiment was successful originally as, while the children came from similar backgrounds, they had no previous relationship. However in similar studies done since then, the hypotheses has not been proven as the children often had previous relationships and other common goals out with the study, so are not effective.


Henri Tajfel (1971) found that inter-group discrimination actually can occur without the competition for scarce resources. That it was actually down to human instinct to organise and make sense of all information by categorising people, objects and events, which highlights differences between groups, and overestimates similarities.

Tajfel developed these ideas in the “Social Identity Theory,” which states that membership of a social group contributes to the development of ones personal identity; we are all in pursuit of “positive self image,” therefore we see groups to which we belong, in a more favourable light. This leads to “in-group favouritism” and “out group bias.”

Experiment & Evidence

This theory has also been tested. Lemyre and Smith (1995) did an experiment whereby participants could give out rewards to members of either an in-group or an out-group. They were given choices between either 2 of the same group, or one of each group, and had to choose one person from each selection. Those who could discriminate in favour of an in group over an out-group did so, and showed higher self esteem than the control group, who were just asked to distribute rewards.

However, Mummendy et al (1992) found that in-group favouritism was not the same as prejudice when they done their experiment where participants were asked to distribute a high itched noise to the in-group and then the out-group. The participants attempted to minimise the unpleasantness for all involved, not just the in-group. They also found that group membership and formation of social identities has a strong effect on the attitudes between in groups and out groups, and that simply being in a group and evaluating it positively often increases self esteem. I do feel that the majority of these studies are not reflective of real- life situations so, while they can prove a theory, the theory is not necessarily correct in reality. I.e. if anyone would be giving out rewards in a realistic giveaway situation, the person giving out the prizes would have nothing to do with the groups participating.


While each of the theories have sufficient evidence to explain the findings, I do feel there are many contributing factors which contribute to prejudice and discrimination in society.

For example, learned behaviours from parents, relatives or friends often mould an individuals response to a person. Peer pressure is huge, particularly in developed countries, where crazes and trends can make anyone an outsider if they don't catch up quickly enough!

There is also the media's influence- showing terrorists on the news may not be intended as a message of discrimination, yet the public respond to it as such, and often tar all Asians with the same brush, despite the fact they have absolutely no involvement whatsoever.

While I do agree that discrimination is an in built defence system for humans, I feel that it has somewhat evolved into a childish reason for not allowing things to move on. Perhaps it is time to introduce a common goal for mankind, and begin the Integration Stage on a larger scale!


© 2013 Lynsey Hart


Lynsey Hart (author) from Lanarkshire on March 26, 2014:

It is an interesting subject. It is quite rife in The South, I've heard? I would still love to visit there though! Simply put though, no one is born with an inbuilt hatred towards another, it's all learned! Quite sad when you think about it :-/

Rick Whitlow from Atlanta, Georgia on March 25, 2014:

Very informative and interesting. I have spent more than 25 years living in the southern United States so I find this even more thought provoking.

Lynsey Hart (author) from Lanarkshire on February 25, 2014:

Thanks for your comment meg- yes the same discrimination flows into my hometown of glasgow- home to Rangers and Celtic! I used to see examples up close when I worked as a bookmaker in one territory! Madness!

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on February 25, 2014:

An interesting hub. Living in Northern Ireland, (though not born here) I see examples of this quite often.

Lynsey Hart (author) from Lanarkshire on August 20, 2013:

Thanks! I wasn't sure how well this topic would work on here!

Jennifer from Lost...In Video Games and Stories on August 19, 2013:

Fascinating! I love sociology (and psychology) as a whole, but this is an interesting part of sociology that I like as well. Voted it up!