Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

Categorical Thinking

The relationship between prejudice and categorical thinking was first systematically explored by Gordon Allport (1954) in his classic book The Nature of Prejudice. Although Allport recognized the emotional, social, economic, and historic dimensions of prejudice, he also proposed that prejudice is partly an outgrowth of normal human functioning. In a much-quoted passage of the book, Allport wrote that:
The human mind must think with the aid of categories....Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it. (p. 20)
The natural tendency to categorize is easy to see in Figure 1. The shape on the far left is a square, and the shape on the far right is a diamond. The intermediate shapes, however, do not fit into a recognized category, and as a result, they are simply assimilated to one of the preexisting categories (e.g., as a "rotated square" or an "off-centered diamond"). In the realm of social perception, the same thing happens with biracial people, bisexual people, and others who are not easily categorized.

A continuum of shapes ranging from a square to a diamond
Figure 1. A continuum of shapes ranging from a square to a diamond.

Social categories form an indispensable part of human thought, but because attributes such as race, sex, and age lie along a continuum, social labels are never more than approximations. In fact, it is surprisingly difficult to think of two categories that do not overlap with each other (that is, two categories with a fixed boundary that cleanly separates each side). At first, you might think of well known opposites such as night and day, earth and sea, or alive and dead. Upon reflection, though, it becomes apparent that there is no fixed point separating these categories. Night and day form a continuum rather than two discrete categories. The boundary between earth and sea changes with the tides and is impossible to mark. Even the line between life and death is a fuzzy one. Does life cease with the last breath? With the last heart beat? When the brain stops all activity?

You might think of categories such as women and men, or people and the environment, but these divisions are also blurrier than they might seem. For example, many people cannot be easily categorized as female or male; they are, instead, "intersexuals" born with ambiguous genitalia (Angier, 1996). And what about the boundary between ourselves and the outside world? Most directly, of course, each of us breathes the immediate environment into our lungs and releases molecules back into the environment. But in a global economy, our connection with the environment reaches further than that; our blood may contain elements from rainwater that nourished crops in distant lands, and our tissues may hold minerals from the soil of a dozen or more countries. Thus, the idea that people constitute a category separate from the environment is really not accurate -- categories such as "people" and "environment" represent useful linguistic conventions, nothing more.

Despite the usefulness of categories in everyday life, they can be devastating when people falsely isolate themselves from the environment, from animals and nature, or from each other. For a vivid illustration of this point, we need only look at the social construction of racial categories. In the United States, for example, at least 75% of African Americans have White ancestry, and 1-5% of the genes carried by American Whites are from African ancestors (Davis, 1991). From a biological point of view, then, Blacks and Whites comprise a continuum rather than a dichotomy. Nonetheless, a false belief in the purity of racial categories has enabled Whites to mistreat Blacks for centuries without realizing that in many cases, they are harming the descendant of a White person.

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