To discriminate is to make distinctions or to acknowledge that differences exist. Therefore, discrimination is an act or practice of making distinctions based on perceived or actual differences. Although the word discriminate has neither a negative nor a positive connotation, the term discrimination often carries a negative undertone. Because these two terminologies do not carry the same meaning, Carl Friedrich Graumann and Margaret Wintermantel termed the latter social discrimination. This entry is concerned with social discrimination, which is defined as any behavior made by a person toward another that is based exclusively on the other’s innate characteristics or group membership. Social discrimination involves denying people fair treatment because of their group membership or personal attributes without considering their individual merit or ability.

Discrimination is not the same as stereotypes or prejudice. Unlike these two constructs, which involve primarily cognitive elements, discrimination involves actions that are often dependent on people’s motivation level and ability to discriminate. It may manifest itself in more than one form (i.e., subtle and direct) and on two different levels (i.e., individual and institutional). Discrimination may be further classified into numerous types, the most common ones being race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, class, sexual orientation, ability, and mental illness. Existing theories on discrimination suggest that it may be caused by both individual (e.g., personality) and structural factors (e.g., intergroup conflict).

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Discrimination versus Stereotypes and Prejudice

While the construct of discrimination is conceptually related to prejudice and stereotypes, several important distinctions merit consideration. Stereotyping involves placing things or people into categories in an oversimplified manner. Hence, stereotypes are overgeneralized mental representations that may carry a positive or a negative meaning. Because stereotypes are frequently acquired through hearsay, it is difficult to know if they are true or false. A number of social cognitive theorists, including Gordon Allport, believe that humans naturally place things and people in categories to create a sense of coherence in our world and to increase personal comfort. For Henri Tajfel, the exaggerations of group attributes often associated with stereotypes stem from the inability of humans to process excess information. Whereas stereotypes involve a person’s positive or negative belief or opinion about the characteristics of a certain group and its members, prejudice is an individual’s negative attitude toward, or tendency to make negative attributions of, a particular group. For instance, if a person perceives Asians as competitive and frugal (stereotypes), and if these attributes are viewed negatively, then this person will likely have negative attitudes (prejudice) toward Asians.

Unlike prejudice and stereotypes, which involve cognitive and affective components, discrimination entails observable behaviors, which can be blatant or subtle. Although it may be logical to assume that negative attitudes can lead to discriminatory actions, the relationship between discrimination and prejudice is not straightforward. In fact, studies that document inconsistencies between attitudes and behaviors have been in existence since the 1930s. Nonetheless, some scholars argue that these observed discrepancies may be due to measurement error rather than to actual inconsistencies between the two constructs: Whereas attitudes are usually assessed using global scales, behaviors are often measured specifically.

Ability and Motivation to Discriminate

Two factors have been proposed to help explain the lack of consistency between attitudes and behaviors: ability and motivation to discriminate. Because discrimination involves actions that are intended to disadvantage certain people, it would require the person discriminating to have the ability to do so. Jennifer L. Eberhardt and Susan T. Fiske relate one’s ability to discriminate to the concept of power. They assert that discrimination occurs when people in power make important choices that ultimately restrict the opportunities of individuals from certain groups. For instance, an individual may hold negative beliefs about a certain group yet may be unable to cause harm. Thus, according to this definition, if the consequences of the person’s actions do not lead to disparities in the way groups are treated, discrimination may not occur.

One’s motivation to discriminate is another important factor when considering the connection between attitudes and behaviors. In general, strong, negative attitudes and feelings (e.g., anger and hatred) toward certain groups increase people’s level of motivation to discriminate against members of such groups. Some believe that tension between groups and perceived threat, which intensifies existing negative attitudes, further stimulate people’s tendency to act on their beliefs and desires. Attitudes with less intensity, on the other hand, are less likely to be transformed into action. Although there has been much scholarly interest in examining how prejudice leads to discrimination, researchers are becoming increasingly interested in examining the factors that allow people to resist acting on their negative attitudes.

Forms and Levels of Discrimination

Discrimination takes on several forms. According to David Schneider, straight-line discrimination (i.e., direct) involves deliberate and conscious negative behaviors that target individuals from certain groups. On the other hand, subtle discrimination (i.e., indirect) is characterized by a range of different behaviors, which may involve a decision not to help and other nonverbal actions.

Discrimination occurs on two levels. On the individual level, discrimination is described as the unequal treatment of an individual based on group membership. Unfair hiring practices that base eligibility on an applicant’s group affiliation (i.e., racial, religious, etc.) is one of the most common examples of discrimination. Individual-level discrimination can be deliberate or subtle in form. On the societal level, institutional discrimination is characterized by a pattern of unequal treatment of individuals based on their group membership. Such patterns are sewn into the fabric of the society or institutions and are often perpetuated unconsciously by prejudice. Institutional discrimination occurs when prejudice permeates the public domain and becomes part of public policy, thus limiting opportunities for certain groups. Like individual-level discrimination, institutional discrimination can be either deliberate (e.g., the decision of lawmakers not to allow certain groups to vote) or subtle (e.g., requiring both male and female police recruits to pass a strength test normed on men before becoming an officer).

Theoretical Background

Social Identity

Humans naturally organize their lives into structures and develop habits to feel comfortable and secure. Identity facilitates the creation of meaning and structure in people’s lives. Theorists believe that having the security of knowing one’s self according to one’s own history and one’s social group membership is vital to people’s mental health. Furthermore, individuals frequently derive meaning from their lives by comparing themselves to those who belong to other groups. For instance, masculinity is meaningful only when a person contrasts it with femininity. Although the process of making comparisons extends beyond just physical characteristics, external attributes are what people often use to differentiate themselves from others.

Two theories are widely recognized with regard to social identity. In social identity theory, social groups are seen as an important source of identity. The theory posits that, in general, people like to view themselves positively and they want to feel positive about themselves. To achieve this, people join groups that will either improve their positive identity or enhance the worthiness of the group to which they already belong. To achieve positive self-regard, people often feel motivated to make distinctions between their own group and other groups. Not surprisingly, they are more likely to favor their own group. Some scholars assert that although hostility toward members of the other group is not central to social identity theory, it is a natural corollary. Social identity theory maintains that conflict develops not only from limited physical resources, which is a realistic threat, but also from scarce social resources, which form a symbolic threat. Social resources include norms, moral principles, and beliefs that people hold. When a minority group advances norms that are different from those of the majority, members of the majority group may feel threatened by the new value system.

Self-categorization theory, which was derived from social identity theory, underscores the relevance of the cognitive aspect of group identity. This theory purports that group identity is not always salient to an individual’s identity and that it may become relevant only when certain environmental cues trigger the individual’s identification with certain groups. For instance, being the only White man in a room full of Asian women may trigger certain feelings that one has about being male and being White.

Ingroup-Outgroup Bias

William G. Sumner coined the terms ingroup (relating to members of one’s own group) and outgroup (relating to members of other groups) in 1907. Sumner argued that it is natural for humans to derogate members of the outgroup because it promotes devotion to the ingroup and its accepted norms. Two codes that govern group behavior according to Herbert Spencer are the codes of “amity” and “enmity.” The code of amity is characterized by positive feelings toward members of the ingroup, while the code of enmity involves negative feelings and behaviors toward those of the outgoup. Sumner later termed this phenomenon of favoring the ingroup and derogating the outgroup ethnocentrism. For Sumner, devotion to one’s group is necessary for the survival of its members; this notion is rooted in the evolutionary theory and in social Darwinism.

Ingroup bias occurs when people give preferential treatment to members of their group or when individuals evaluate a member of their group more favorably than they do nonmembers. For instance, students in one university are likely to evaluate their sports team, regardless of their performance, more favorably than teams from other universities. In fact, findings from a number of studies suggest that individuals are more likely to show positive behaviors toward members of their own ingroup than members of the outgroup even if there are no direct benefits to showing favoritism to members of one’s own group. Accordingly, this also means that people are likely to discriminate against members of the outgroup even if doing so presents no perceived value to them or their group.

Social Dominance

Another influential theory that has been proposed recently to explain the basis of social discrimination and inequality is social dominance theory. Social dominance theory states that human societies naturally organize themselves into groups. These groups reflect social hierarchies wherein groups in power enjoy substantial privilege and social value while subordinate groups suffer negative consequences and stigma. There are three distinct group systems within this theory: the age system (which privileges adults and middle-age people over the young), the patriarchal system (favoring males over females), and the arbitrary set system (which is made up of socially constructed group distinctions based on situational and historical factors, including race, social class, religion, etc.).

Social dominance theorists believe that the systematic nature of group discrimination results from people’s shared knowledge and beliefs that serve to legitimize and uphold discriminatory practices. These scholars suggest that these shared ideologies influence how resources are allocated, which in turn serve to perpetuate existing prejudice and discriminatory behaviors. According to James Sidanius, the acceptance of principles that legitimize discrimination is due, in part, to people’s desire to be in power, a psychological orientation known as the social dominance orientation. This orientation is viewed to be influenced not only by individual factors (e.g., personality), but also by contextual factors (e.g., power differential).

Sidanius and his colleagues also assert that focusing solely on the individual’s psychological motivation and social construals (as in the case of social identity theory) to explain the nature of discrimination ignores the important social consequences of the actions (i.e., systematic oppression or structural inequality) or the structural causes of the behaviors. On the other hand, they maintain that focusing mainly on structural theories fails to explain individual differences in behaviors. Several theorists argue that social dominance theory addresses the limitations of the two approaches by focusing on both structural and psychological aspects of discrimination, its universal and subtle forms, and the interaction between different systems (e.g., individual predispositions, social contexts, and cultural ideologies).

Common Types of Social Discrimination

Race and Ethnicity

Racial discrimination refers to the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race. Although the definition of race is often disputed, racial discrimination usually references unequal treatment of people based on widely shared notions of race that are based largely but not exclusively on physical attributes (including the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, etc.) and cultural heritage. Rich accounts of racial discrimination and oppression exist in the histories of the United States and other countries.

Although the United States has made improvements to reduce discriminatory behaviors through public policy, several historical factors continue to perpetuate racism, which has been present since the time of slavery. Inequalities in job opportunities and educational access with regard to racial differences are still prevalent, and minority groups continue to have lower income and higher unemployment rates compared with their White counterparts. Though overt racial discrimination decreased over the years, modern institutional discrimination has taken its place. Racial discrimination emphasizes the inferiority of the minority groups, which can invoke different emotions for members of the subjugated group, such as feelings of humiliation, shame, frustration, anger, and even hatred toward members of other groups. Hence, discrimination has important psychological implications for its victims. The development of various psychological symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, has been linked with the stressful experiences of those who have been the targets of discrimination.

The continued arrival of immigrants, including refugees, in the United States, reinforces the concept of ethnic and racial difference (the idea of “us vs. them”). Xenophobia (the irrational fear of strangers) brings about feelings of distrust of and discomfort around immigrants. These feelings may activate people’s prejudice, which in turn increases their motivation to discriminate. Discrimination toward immigrant groups is well documented throughout history and has been associated with competition over limited employment opportunities. For instance, one of the underlying causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots was the high rate of unemployment and the changing ethnic makeup of the city. As Hispanic immigrants began to populate historically African American neighborhoods, Koreans took over businesses that were formerly owned by Blacks. As a result, a number of riot victims experienced substantial distress and trauma characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although there are larger institutional issues linked with the L.A. riots, this incident also serves as an example that prejudice and discrimination may occur even between members of various minority groups.

Access to education is another issue relevant to discrimination that continues to stimulate public debate. Affirmative action is a policy that began as a measure to correct institutional discrimination against traditionally underrepresented groups. Whereas some people believe that affirmative action can promote the advancement of historically disadvantaged groups, others argue that it is an act of reverse discrimination that discriminates against poor Whites and Asians. Certain psychological outcomes have been associated with affirmative action. It has been found that affirmative action sometimes decreases the recipients’ level of motivation and self-efficacy, and that individuals who believe that they were hired because of their minority status suffer the stigma of incompetence. Furthermore, they may be subjected to prejudice and further discrimination, especially by those who feel that they are undeserving. The pressure of performing to expectations adds to the stress that these individuals face.


Gender discrimination refers to behaviors that deny individuals opportunities and privileges on the basis of their gender. Unlike the category of sex, which classifies people according to their biological or phenotypic differences (i.e., male or female), gender encompasses both biological and social components. When people talk about gender, they are usually referring to the social or cultural attributes of being male or female (i.e., masculinity and femininity).

The treatment of men and women has varied significantly by country throughout history. Nonetheless, some scholars claim that the existing body of evidence suggests that women in most societies are perceived as subordinate to men. In the United States, women were not afforded the same employment opportunities as men, who were more likely to receive better educational opportunities. Women have historically accepted roles ascribed to them by their male-dominated society. It was not until after the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 that more women began to play a more active role in advocating for their rights. Moreover, Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act (which removed employment and educational barriers for women, respectively) were designed to help improve the opportunities of women in the educational and occupational arenas. However, the current state of inequality between men and women suggests that these policies, which are intended to protect women, are not implemented effectively. Women continue to work in low-status jobs and are paid less than men who hold the same position.

Some theorists argue that benevolent prejudice, not hostile sexism, is the main cause of ongoing gender discrimination. Paternalism, which allows men to assert their privilege as the dominant gender, can be used to argue that men use their position of power to women’s benefit, an idea that seems favorable to women. Men in male-dominated societies reason that they carry a great deal of responsibility to protect and provide for women. This paternalistic idea, however, has hurt women more than it helped them because it supports patriarchy. Research on affirmative action, which also promotes the preferential hiring of women, suggests that women who believe that they get hired because of their gender are less likely to be motivated, interested, and committed to their occupations. They are also more likely to negatively evaluate their ability and performance on a task.

Finally, women have frequently been viewed as sex objects throughout history. Research found that women are more likely than men to be the target of sexually derogatory comments and to be perceived as sexual objects. These sexist incidents were found to be associated with depression, anger, and decrease in self-esteem.

Sexual Orientation, Ability, and Mental illness

People who are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, ability, or mental illness share one thing in common: They possess characteristics that many people would consider to lie outside a socially constructed idea of normality. Hence, they can be easily seen as members of the outgroup. Discrimination based on sexual orientation refers to behaviors that deny people opportunities and rights because of their sexual orientation (e.g., homosexuality and bisexuality). Because it is often perceived that attraction to a person from the opposite sex is normal and natural, anything that deviates from this biological norm is seen as “abnormal.” A large majority of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals report experiencing discrimination because of their sexual orientation, and their rate of victimization (due to hate crimes) is higher than that of the national population, especially for gay males. Furthermore, many gays and lesbians also report being denied employment because of their sexual identity, while those employed but treated unfairly in their work environment are more likely to have negative attitudes about work. Population-based studies also indicate that lesbian and gay youth have higher rates of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and substance abuse and dependence compared with the general population. Epidemiologists associate these observed rates to perceived discrimination (stigma) felt by gay men and lesbians. Gay men also face the stigma of being perceived as having AIDS or HIV. The fear of the AIDS epidemic may further motivate heterosexual people with homophobia to discriminate against gay men.

Like homosexuality, a person’s disability has been seen as a deviation from what is considered normal. Discrimination due to one’s disability occurs when a competent person with a disability (i.e., physical or mental impairment that limits the execution of certain activities) is denied the same opportunities as those who do not have disabilities. Historically, individuals with disabilities were institutionalized and separated from people who were considered “normal.” Ability-based discrimination can be traced back to the eugenics movement and to the idea of natural selection. Supporters of the movement feared that human civilization would be bound to failure if the “inferior” classes multiplied to produce more “defective” children. People with visible disabilities, in particular, face the stigma of being seen as different. They have also experienced hate crimes, which have been associated with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and anger. People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the United States. They have a very high unemployment rate, which many argue is the result of the failure of the larger society to accommodate people of different abilities. For instance, many establishments do not offer Braille for individuals with visual impairment or an interpreter for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Since the United Nations broadened the definition of disability to include mental illness, many have referred to mental illness as a form of disability. Supporters of the eugenics movement were not only concerned with people with physical disabilities; they were also worried about people with mental illness, regarding the mentally ill as “feebleminded.” Today, many people with mental illness are still stigmatized and seen as abnormal. Despite efforts to educate people about the etiology of mental illness, many still attribute mental illness to physical or moral weakness, resulting in a number of individuals with mental illness suffering humiliation for their conditions. In some cultures (e.g., South Asians) that value close-knit relationships with community members, mental illness brings shame to the family because it carries a stigma. Accordingly, they may delay seeking treatment because they fear degradation and the stigma that comes with the illness.

Other Types of Discrimination

Discrimination has many types. Certain types may be more controversial than others, depending on the current state of affairs. Moreover, some people may be more likely than others to fall victim to discrimination because they belong to more than one discriminated group. Gay Black men, for example, may be more likely to suffer from hate crimes than heterosexual Black men or gay White men. Understanding how the interactions between the different types of discrimination affect both the risk for becoming a victim of discrimination and the possibility of subsequent mental health problems is an important issue to consider.


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