Prejudice Reduction Definition
Prejudice reduction refers to a decrease in (most often) negative attitudes or evaluations that individuals hold in relation to other people. These negative attitudes are based on the groups to which people belong, such as a White person disliking someone because he or she is a Black person. Although social psychologists have linked the idea of prejudice reduction most directly with changing negative attitudes, this term is also used to refer to decreasing stereotypic beliefs (such as the belief that all gay men are promiscuous), outward expressions of bias, or negative behaviors.
Prejudice Reduction Background and History
Prejudice reduction was first studied only when prejudice was seen as a social problem in the United States. Until the 1920s, there was widespread belief among nonscientists and scientists alike in the racial superiority of Whites. Indeed, prejudice was considered perfectly defensible and rationale. Between the 1920s and 1940s, scientists increasingly viewed prejudice as problematic and certain aspects of World War II (e.g., anti-Semitism and genocide) underscored this.
Prejudice clearly was a social problem and strategies for curbing it needed to be understood.
In 1954, Gordon Allport published his book The Nature of Prejudice, which provided the first comprehensive analysis of prejudice and laid the foundation for decades of subsequent research. Allport’s writing provides many roots of modern work, three of which are especially important. First, Allport discussed the natural human tendency to categorize to simplify the world, noting that this includes categorizing people into groups. Many mental tricks allow people to place others into categories and, once categorization occurs, many other processes naturally occur to make categories resistant to change. For example, a boy who tugs on a girl’s pigtails may be viewed as an aggressive Black boy, whereas the same behavior by a White boy may be interpreted as playful. Therefore, reducing prejudice often involves getting people to alter the nature of the categories in their minds so they can perceive people differently.
A second root of modern work on prejudice reduction is Allport’s discussion of the inner conflict that people can experience in relation to their prejudices and the motivation that this conflict provides for prejudice reduction. Here Allport referred to Gunnar Myrdal, who in 1944 discussed the “American dilemma.” According to Myrdal, many Americans are prone to a moral conflict between the ideas of equality on which the nation was founded and the racist traditions of prejudice and discrimination. The idea that conflict between values and prejudiced tendencies can spur people to reduce their prejudice later became a cornerstone of various strategies for reducing prejudice.
A third root found in Allport’s work is his inter-group-contact hypothesis. The idea that contact between people of different backgrounds and races can help people realize that some of their beliefs are incorrect or that they do like people who are different from themselves is straightforward. However, making contact between groups work to reduce prejudice is more complicated. Allport correctly noted this and described some of the conditions that must be met for contact to reduce prejudice successfully.
At different points in time, different prejudice reduction strategies have become more or less important in the field of social psychology. These changes often can be traced to the combination of historical or societal changes and with popular methods within the field. For example, starting in the 1980s, blatant prejudice became less accepted and prevalent in the United States while subtle biases and prejudices remained quite common. Also, social psychologists interested in prejudice were adopting many techniques from cognitive psychology to study the mind’s use of social stereotypes. The result was the discovery that prejudiced responses sometimes occur not because people consciously hold prejudiced beliefs and attitudes but, rather, because learned prejudices and stereotypes can be activated and used without people even being aware that this is happening. Patricia Devine formally advanced and tested this argument. A new view of prejudice reduction emerged from this line of thinking that involved learning to control and change biases resulting from nonconscious processes.
Norms and Prejudice Reduction
Society’s norms or expectations of what is acceptable behavior greatly influence when people will try to reduce their prejudice and why they do so. Not all bias is looked upon in the same way. For instance, blatant racial prejudice is not considered politically correct nowadays; however, other prejudices are considered acceptable (such as not wanting a convicted sex offender to babysit a child). As such, the social norms of a particular time or geographic location in part dictate what people deem as important prejudices to curb. If a prejudice is recognized as problematic and labeled as inappropriate in society, people are likely to act accordingly and not express bias to avoid violating important social norms. For example, if an individual is surrounded by people who value equality among men and women, this person is likely to reduce his or her prejudice by also endorsing those values and acting in ways that are not biased.
Values and Prejudice Reduction
Early research by Milton Rokeach highlighted that people can be motivated to reduce their prejudice when they are made aware of the conflict between the values they hold and their actions. In his classic research, he suggested that people were potentially more concerned about their own personal freedom than equality for others. Awareness of this conflict between people’s values and actions prompted them to change their behavior and participate in activities promoting equality. For example, someone may embrace cultural values like racial equality but still have a preference for hiring a White applicant over a Black applicant. When people become aware of this hypocrisy, it can make them feel dissatisfied with themselves and motivate them to act in line with their values and reduce their prejudice. Months after these types of experiences, people can continue to show positive changes consistent with equality.
Contact and Prejudice Reduction
The idea that intergroup contact may reduce prejudice was a driving force behind the introduction of laws that required desegregation of, for example, schools. However, contact between members of different groups can increase tension and reinforce prejudice if certain conditions are not met. Decades of research have revealed that for contact to reduce prejudice, people in contact should have equal status (e.g., one is not designated as the person in charge), they should be working together on common goals (e.g., a school project) rather than competing, institutional support should be present (such as when school officials encourage the contact), and the contact should be intimate rather than casual so that friendships can develop. Although all of these conditions are not always necessary, the more that are met the greater the potential is for prejudice reduction. An excellent example of a strategy that meets these conditions is Elliot Aronson’s jigsaw classroom technique, where each student working in a group is provided with a segment of important information from a lesson to teach the others.
Researchers have also studied how contact can lead people to view others who are different from themselves in new ways, such as leading people to view themselves as members of one large, superordinate group rather than as members of smaller separate groups. For example, people of different races in the United States could focus on their common American identity.
Individual Efforts in Prejudice Reduction
Even if people do not hold prejudices of which they are consciously aware, they may be in the habit of responding in biased ways toward members of certain groups. These more automatic prejudices can be combated with individual efforts to change what feelings and thoughts immediately come to mind. One approach involves spending time thinking about people who are very different than a stereotype of a group (such as imagining a strong and independent woman). Another approach involves intensive training to think “no” whenever members of stereotypes groups are paired with stereotypes, such as when a picture of a Black person is presented along with the word lazy. Finally, research shows that people who are aware of their automatic prejudices and who feel bad about them can learn to associate certain stimuli with prejudiced responses they have had in the past and their negative feelings about having had such responses. When these stimuli are present in a subsequent situation, they can trigger people to slow down and respond more carefully so that they can reduce their prejudiced responses. As these examples of individual effort strategies illustrate, people must be highly motivated and vigilant in their attempts to control and change engrained prejudices.
- Devine, P. G., & Monteith, M. J. (1999). Automaticity and control in stereotyping. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual process theories in social psychology (pp. 339-360). New York: Guilford Press.
- Dovidio, J. F., Glick, P., & Rudman, L. A. (Eds.). (2005). On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Gaertner S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2000). Reducing intergroup bias: The common ingroup identity model. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.