Discrimination Definition

Discrimination is the phenomenon of treating a person differently from other persons based on group membership and an individual’s possession of certain characteristics such as age, class, gender, race, religion, and sexuality. Discriminatory behavior can take various forms from relatively mild behavior, such as social avoidance, to acts of violence, including hate crimes and genocide.

Issues Pertaining to the Study of Discrimination

Social psychologists study several aspects of discrimination, including overt or old-fashioned discrimination and subtle or modern forms. For example, overt discrimination might involve explicitly excluding job applicants who are women or people of color. Subtle discrimination occurs when, for example, the job interviewer unwittingly might sit farther away, not make eye contact, and conduct a shorter interview with a job applicant who is a woman or person of color.

Social psychologists distinguish individual discrimination from institutional discrimination. Individual discrimination, which is typically studied by social psychologists, includes discriminatory behavior by one person toward another. Institutional discrimination can take the form of government-sponsored laws and practices such as the Jim Crow laws during the post-Emancipation era in the United States that legally segregated Blacks and Whites in public places and denied African Americans many civil rights. Laws banning same-sex marriage are more recent manifestations of institutional discrimination.

Another area of study for social psychologists is whether there are individual personality chaDiscriminationracteristics associated with discriminatory behavior. That is, are there certain types of people who are more likely to discriminate? Individuals who emphasize submission to authority and are conventional and traditional in their values may discriminate against those who are different from them. Also, those who have difficulty with ambiguity and have a personal need for order and structure in their environment may discriminate more than those who have more tolerance for ambiguity.

Finally, social psychologists may investigate the extent to which discrimination (behavior) is related to prejudice (negative feelings) and stereotyping (beliefs and thoughts). Many assume that discriminatory behavior is a product of prejudice and stereotyping—that the prejudiced person discriminates, and those who are not prejudiced do not discriminate. Or, those who are stereotypical in their thinking will likely discriminate against a target person about whom they hold stereotypes. The relationship between these three constructs is complicated, and discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping are not always related. For instance, a person might be familiar with certain stereotypes of some groups (e.g., Hispanics are thought to be lazy, lesbians are believed to be masculine) but may not treat members of those groups differently. Also, stereotyping and prejudice could be a consequence, not a cause, of discrimination. In an attempt to understand why some people are treated worse than others, one might conclude that the target of discrimination actually is worse (prejudice), or actually possesses different characteristics (stereotyping), than those who are not the targets of discrimination. In other words, that discrimination exists can justify or contribute to people’s prejudices and stereotypes.

One issue worth noting is that discrimination, because it is behavior, tends to be illegal, whereas stereotyping and prejudice (thoughts and feelings) are not. In other words, a supervisor might believe women are not fit for management positions, but it is only when and if that supervisor treats women and men differently (e.g., in hires or promotions) that legality becomes relevant.


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  3. Garnets, L., & Kimmel, D. (2002). Psychological perspectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual experiences. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. Tavris, C. (1992). Mismeasure of woman: Why women are not the better sex, the inferior sex, or the opposite sex. New York: Touchstone.
  5. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (2001). The problem: Discrimination. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed., pp. 186-196). New York: Worth.