Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

I. Prejudice

Psychological Bulletin, 1925 Throughout the past century, research on prejudice has closely reflected ideological trends, telling us as much about the personal biases of the scientific community as about prejudice itself. According to John Duckitt (1992), psychological research on prejudice first emerged in the 1920s and was based upon American and European race theories that attempted to prove White superiority. For instance, after reviewing 73 studies on race and intelligence, an influential 1925 Psychological Bulletin article concluded that the "studies taken all together seem to indicate the mental superiority of the white race" (Garth, 1925, p. 359). In light of medical, anthropological, and psychological studies purporting to demonstrate the superiority of White people, many social scientists viewed prejudice as a natural response to "backward" races.

This perspective changed in the 1930s and 1940s with progress in civil rights, successful challenges to colonialism, and growing concern about anti-Semitism. Following the Holocaust, several influential theorists came to regard prejudice as pathological, and they searched for personality syndromes associated with racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice. The most prominent of these theorists was Theodor Adorno, who had fled Nazi Germany and concluded that the key to prejudice lay in what he called an "authoritarian personality." In his book The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and his coauthors (1950) described authoritarians as rigid thinkers who obeyed authority, saw the world as black and white, and enforced strict adherence to social rules and hierarchies. Authoritarian people, they argued, were more likely than others to harbor prejudices against low-status groups.

Later researchers criticized Adorno's work, contending that authoritarianism had not been measured properly, that it did not account for cultural and regional differences in prejudice, and that the theory's psychoanalytic assumptions lacked research support (Altemeyer, 1981; Martin, 2001; Pettigrew, 1958). Yet despite the merit of these criticisms, Adorno and his colleagues were right in at least three respects. First, a politically conservative form of authoritarianism, known as "right-wing authoritarianism," does correlate with prejudice. Well-designed studies in South Africa, Russia, Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere have found that right-wing authoritarianism is associated with a variety of prejudices (Altemeyer, 1996; Duckitt & Farre, 1994; McFarland, Ageyev, & Abalakina, 1993). Second, people who view the social world hierarchically are more likely than others to hold prejudices toward low-status groups. This is especially true of people who want their own group to dominate and be superior to other groups -- a characteristic known as "social dominance orientation" (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994). Social dominance orientation tends to correlate with prejudice even more strongly than does right-wing authoritarianism, and studies have linked it to anti-Black and anti-Arab prejudice, sexism, nationalism, opposition to gay rights, and other attitudes concerning social hierarchies (Altemeyer, 1998; Sidanius, Levin, Liu, & Pratto, 2000; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Finally, Adorno and his coauthors were correct in pointing out that rigid categorical thinking is a central ingredient in prejudice.

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