Where does Personal Prejudice Come from, and is it Natural?


By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Personal prejudice is the essential foundation of most group conflicts at different levels, including wars. Even in the most open and democratic societies, a great deal of prejudice and discrimination still exists based on race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and a variety of other group memberships. Why is that?

Faces on chicken eggs in the form of facial expressions, reflecting emotions.
Personal prejudice is so common that it is sometimes easily neglected and not realized. Apparently, there is something in most people that leads to it. (Image: Vjacheslav_Kozyrev/Shutterstock)

Is Prejudice Common?

In the twentieth century, around 200 million people were killed by war, oppression, and political conflicts. This is the statistics of deaths for political reasons, not hatred and oppression at more personal levels. Racism, personal prejudice, and discrimination based on different factors are parts of every society. Are people with personal prejudices radical racists? Not necessarily.

Most people prefer being kind and good, but all of them have disliked or mistreated others based on personal prejudices and without even knowing the person. Why do these normally nice people discriminate and sometimes even hurt or kill others based on the prejudices?

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Henri Tajfel, the Social Psychologist

In the 1970s, the British social psychologist Henri Tajfel studied why groups developed prejudices and conflicts against members of other groups. He was a Polish Jew who had lost most of his family in World War II, while he himself had been imprisoned during that time. He moved to England after the war to get his Ph.D., and started studying what he had felt really strongly: prejudice and conflicts.

Close-up of black woman with clenched fists above her head protesting with group of people on the streets.
Normal people with no dogmatic background can show extreme prejudices toward another group of people, for no apparent reason. (Image: Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock)

He had witnessed false examples of the psychological beliefs of his time. The Germans who had developed extreme prejudices against the Jews were not, as psychologists explained, radically dogmatic. They were normal people, yet they hated Jews openly and strongly. Tajfel concluded that the first basis of personal prejudice is simply distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Learn more about why is self-control so hard?

‘Us’ against ‘Them’

People tend to categorize people into groups and generalize characteristics in each group. Usually, ‘us’ develops negative attitudes about ‘them’, simply because they are not grouped with them.

Tajfel wanted a population for his study of normal people. He planned to put them in two groups based on the least important characteristics that were too arbitrary for people to care about and show prejudices. Next, he planned to slowly add characteristics that could form biases.

Despite the amazing strategy, the study was never conducted since Tajfel could not find such unimportant and random characteristics. Just putting people into two different groups, even in a random or arbitrary or meaningless way, made them develop immediate biases and prejudices.

If there is a group of people, all of them pretty much alike, and they are assigned randomly to groups A and B, they begin developing in-group favoritism. There is no real difference between the groups, but merely being in a group makes people think they are better than others. They may not even know the members of their group, but they are still positively prejudiced toward them and negatively prejudiced toward those out of the group.

Learn more about why do we care what others think of us?

Realistic Conflict Theory

Scientists decided to study what makes prejudice and conflict between groups worse, as simply putting them in groups was enough to create prejudice and conflict. The realistic conflict theory was one way to understand prejudice and conflict. It proposes that discrimination and conflict develop when groups are in competition for some limited resources.

When two groups begin competing, whether for winning land or in a small local football match, prejudice and negative behaviors intensify. Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues conducted a famous study in this regard.

The Eagles and the Rattlers

Muzafer Sherif’s team gathered a group of 22-, 11- and 12-year-old boys for a summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. All participants were white kids from middle-class, Protestant backgrounds, and none knew the others before the study. At the camp, they were randomly assigned to two different groups.

The concept of misunderstanding, a barrier in relations, denial of society. Barriers between people, prejudice.
Merely drawing a line between two groups creates personal prejudice and biases against the ‘others’. (Image: Radachynskyi Serhii/Shutterstock)

In the first phase of the study, the boys chose names for their groups and made group T-shirts and flags without knowing the other group existed. They called themselves the Eagles and the Rattlers and were given enough time to know their teammates. Next, they began competing against each other in games like baseball, tug-of-war, etc.

Beginning the competition was enough for the boys to develop negative attitudes against the other group. Soon after, verbal hostility turned into actions like burning the competitor’s flag and stealing from their cabin. The aggression intensified so badly that the researchers had to keep the groups separated to ensure that no one to get hurt.

When the researchers asked the boys to rate the members of their groups, they showed strong in-group favoritism, rating their own group much more positively than the other.

Thus, simply being in a group creates prejudice, and competition intensifies it strongly. Apparently, this is a natural human behavior.

Learn more about a few mysteries we can’t explain yet.

Common Questions about Personal Prejudice

Q: Why do people have prejudice?

Personal prejudice is a kind of mechanism that people use to protect the group they are a member of against the others. It is a common trait at various levels.

Q: Why do people hate others without knowing them?

Personal prejudice forms two types of biases in groups: in favor of those within the group and against those outside the group. Thus, simply being a part of a different group can cause discrimination and hatred.

Q: Does prejudice result from certain personality variables?

Researchers used to believe that only some people who tend to be more dogmatic show personal prejudice against others, but it turned out to be a much more common and natural phenomenon.

Q: What is the realistic conflict theory?

The theory explains that discrimination and conflict arise when groups are in competition for scarce resource. Thus, personal prejudice turns into conflict between groups.

Keep Reading
Is Our Willpower Unlimited?
Psychology of Overreacting and the Social Influence
Physical and Psychological Pain: The Case of Hurt Feelings