Why are humans prejudiced?


by Raushan Takhar (L5E)

Friday 6th November 2014

Humans have a tendency to form groups that are so strong that there seems little more for psychology to teach us. Humans don’t need it to be proven to them that favouring our group over others is a common part of how people think. Psychologist Henri Tajfel taught us how little encouragement we need to treat people in a biased way because of the groups they are in. He was interested in the conditions of group prejudice. He wanted to know what it took to turn an average fair-minded person into their prejudice cousin. To do this, he devised an experiment called the ‘minimal group paradigm’.

The experiment entailed:

  1. Participants being divided into groups on some random basis e.g. Eye colour, what paintings they like etc.
  2. After being told what group they are in, participants are divided up so that they are alone when they make a series of choices about how rewards will be shared among other people in the groups.
  3. From now, the group membership is entirely abstract.
  4. Nobody else can be seen and other group members are referred to by anonymous numbers.
  5. Participants have certain numbers which they call each other (e.g. Member number 74 from group A and member number 44 from group B)
  6. The choices the participants then have to make are about how many points they grant another member from each team. (E.g. Member number 74 from group A receives 8 points whereas member number 44 from group B receives 2 points). The points that each person receives translates into real money.
  7. Participants show favouritism towards their own team members and to others who they know.
  8. People ended up showing favouritism even when it cost their own team several points.

Two things that Tajfel leant from this experiment were:

  • Some people often maximised their total reward (fair minded person)
  • Some people showed a tendency to maximise the difference between the groups (favouritism driven person)

Judging from the experiment, the group found that people know that their choices won’t directly affect them. This situation is enough to evoke favouritism. The experiment suggests that in-group bias is fundamental to thinking as the act of categorisations itself. People can’t let this instinct run away with itself.

Much of the TREK discussion on this topic was based on stereotypes and what they are and why people are stereotypical towards others. The definition that the group found for a stereotype was giving a fixed description of somebody because they are different to you. We found that people stereotype others on the basis that they are different and people fear the different culture, look and personality of others. The fear that people experience is what provokes the stereotyping and this escalates to prejudice. The group therefore found that prejudice was the judging of somebody before you have met them properly. If this is an explanation of ‘negative’ stereotyping, we can also explain ‘positive’ stereotyping.  This form of stereotyping can be potentially helpful to us by enabling us to judge swiftly whether a person we encounter in a specific situation poses a danger to us (think of a woman who takes a taxi on her own at night or is walking down a deserted street alone…). When we are in self-preservation mode, making quick, simplifying generalisations about people and situations can be a life saver…

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