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Why do some people dislike entire groups of people? What causes prejudice? In this lesson, we’ll look at some of the theories about what makes people prejudiced, including scapegoat theory, authoritarian personality, and culture theory.


Jasmine is really sad.

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There’s a guy at her work who thinks that women aren’t nearly as good as men. He’s made some sexist comments, and it makes Jasmine really sad. Why would someone say things about an entire group of people like that?Prejudice is a preconceived notion about a group of people. For example, when Jasmine’s coworker says that women should be kept in the home, he’s prejudiced against women.

But knowing that he’s prejudiced doesn’t really answer Jasmine’s question. Why are people prejudiced against others? Let’s look at some of the major theories of the origins of prejudice.

Scapegoat Theory

Jasmine’s coworker makes comments about how women should stay at home and not be allowed to work in an office with the men. He says that Jasmine and her other female coworkers are taking jobs away from men who deserve them.Scapegoat theory says that prejudice is a way for people to blame others for their problems.

Support for this theory comes from the fact that, when times are tough, prejudice seems higher.People who are different from you are particularly good scapegoats because they feel separated from you. For example, Jasmine’s coworker hasn’t been promoted. Instead of asking himself what he’s done (or hasn’t done) to warrant the decision not to promote him, he blames women and says that they’re taking the job he wants.

Because he’s not a woman, he feels safe blaming them for his problems.Related to scapegoat theory is conflict theory, which says that in order to hold onto their possessions, power, and status, privileged classes will justify behaviors that keep the other groups down. In other words, if Jasmine’s coworker feels like he might lose his status in the office because women are being promoted, he will justify prejudiced comments and discriminatory behaviors.

Authoritarian Personality

Jasmine isn’t the first person to face prejudice. In fact, one of the most horrific events of the 20th century, the Holocaust, was fueled by prejudice and hatred. Theodor Adorno, who fled Nazi Germany, came up with his own theory of what makes a person prejudiced.

Adorno blames the authoritarian personality, a personality type that involves rigid thinking, obeying authority, seeing things in black and white, and believing in a hierarchical structure of society. That is, authoritarian personalities believe that some people are just better than others.By looking at prejudice as a personality trait, Adorno promoted the idea that prejudice is pathological. And according to him, the authoritarian personality tends towards prejudice.What does that have to do with Jasmine? Well, if her coworker is an authoritarian personality, he might be more prone to prejudice than if he had a different personality type.

Culture Theory

Another theory that tries to explain the origins of prejudice is culture theory, also called cultural transmission theory, which says that prejudice is part of a culture’s norms, or rules, and that prejudice is transmitted through culture (hence calling it cultural transmission theory).Essentially, cultural transmission theory says that children are taught stereotypes of other groups, which leads to prejudice and discrimination.Take Jasmine’s coworker. He was raised in a place where women were devalued and seen as less important than men. As a child, he was taught that women are weaker and not as smart as men. As a result, he’s grown up to be prejudiced against women.

Social Identity Theory

Jasmine’s coworker isn’t just sexist about women.

It’s also really important to him that he’s a guy. He acts macho and feels like he needs to be tough and like sports and hate romantic movies, just because he’s a man. It’s a big part of who he is. Social identity theory says that prejudice is an attempt to enhance one’s self-esteem by making the group they identify with more attractive.The group a person belongs to, called an in-group, becomes part of his or her identity. Take Jasmine’s coworker: He’s a guy, and being a guy is a big part of his identity.

Because our group is such a big part of our identity, we want to have pride in it. Jasmine’s coworker wants to be proud to be a man.What’s an easy way to value an in-group? Believing negative stereotypes about a group that one does not belong to, called an out-group. To Jasmine’s coworker, women are part of an out-group.

By being prejudiced against women, he is essentially saying that women aren’t as good as men. Because men are superior, and he’s a man, he gets an immediate ego boost from that type of prejudice.

Lesson Summary

Prejudice is a preconceived notion about a group of people.

There are many theories about how people become prejudiced. Scapegoat theory says that people are prejudiced as a way to blame others for their problems. It is closely related to conflict theory, which says that people in power will justify actions to keep their power. An authoritarian personality, which consists of rigid thinking and a belief in a hierarchical structure to society, is more prone to prejudice.

Cultural transmission theory says that children are taught to be prejudiced through cultural norms. Finally, social identity theory says that prejudice is an attempt to enhance one’s self-esteem by making the group they identify with more attractive.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the video on prejudice, you should be able to:

  • Define prejudice
  • Analyze the scapegoat theory and how it relates to conflict theory
  • Consider the authoritarian personality and how it ties into prejudice
  • Explain culture theory
  • Describe how social identity theory can affect prejudice

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