In the past few years, conversations and conflicts based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status, have once again risen to the forefront around the country. Our communities have had to contend with domestic terrorist attacks, nuclear conflicts, government shutdowns and social movements and campaigns on the issues of diversity, inclusion and equality. No conversation on inter-group relationships is complete without a discussion on stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. Today, I want to look at what these concepts are and how they affect the diversity of our experiences, the inclusiveness of our thoughts, and the equality of our actions.
Stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination usually occur simultaneously in social group interactions. But the way these concepts operate internally in our minds are different. Psychologically, these three constructs are inter-related yet distinct, and have different and unequal impacts on human thoughts and actions.In a nutshell, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination are the three sides of the triangle of conflict in inter-group relationships.
Stereotypes are defined as,
“fixed, over generalized belief[s] about a group or class of people”.
Stereotypes happen as a natural result of the human thought process. Our brains are cognitive misers. In other words, our brains try to help us survive by exerting as little energy as possible on anything that is not related to breathing and living. When we meet other people, our brains automatically, implicitly, and unconsciously categorize and label people based on traits that may stand out in our perceptions based on our personal experiences. We apply these labels to all of our experiences which seem similar . These unconscious (happening outside of the realm of a person’s awareness) labels may be positive or negative, but the labeling process is innate in all humans.
This is why when meeting people of Indian heritage, one might assume that they are all either highly educated engineers or doctors, or, why boys may think that girls aren’t good at solving mathematical problems (unless the girl is Asian). The labels that are created are dependent on our perceptions and experiences in life, and on our personal world views and perspectives about life.
Prejudice is the affective or emotional component of inter-group conflicts. Just like stereotypes, prejudice is also a mostly implicit and automatic process. When we are stereotyping, our brains create unique categories to label people. When these categories are created, our brains naturally create an “us” versus “them” division in our minds. All those people whose traits we personally identify with become “us”, or, the in-group, and those whose traits are significantly different from us become “them, the out-group.
By definition, prejudice is,
“the preconception of opinion or attitude toward an outgroup”.
This pre-conceived judgment is made using our stereotypes. Within this scope, we tend to accept and like those who are more like us, as we attribute more positive characteristic traits to our in-group. Those who are different from us, whose differences we don’t like, get de-valued. In terms of ethnicity, this is the concept of ethnocentrism – the idea that one’s own group is superior to other groups that one does not belong to. The positive side of prejudice is personal pride in one’s own group which leads to a bias favoring one’s in-group. The negative side is demeaning thoughts and actions towards “others”, which culminates in the out-group’s exclusion.
The source of these positive and negative evaluations (prejudice) is the individual’s need for positive self-esteem, and positive social identity. As human beings, we need validation that the groups we belong to, and the preferences we make are valid. Prejudice allows us to carry out this task. This is why people are proud about who they are and the groups that they belong to, while they have negative opinions of those individuals who are comparably different from them and those groups that they don’t belong to.
“unfair or unequal treatment of an individual (or group) based on certain characteristics, including, but not limited to:
- Marital status
- National origin
- Religion, and
- Sexual orientation”
Discrimination is the behavioral part of inter-group conflict. Discrimination may happen overtly or covertly in our daily lives. Discrimination is overt in cases where people are denied the rights or privileges to basic needs – needs like employment, housing, and healthcare. Many cultures and nations have legal protections against overt discrimination in their societies. In other cases, discrimination can be very covert and subtle in society. For instance, as a society, we pay more attention to more physically attractive people. In groups, we tend to engage in more eye contact with those are more physically attractive. More attractive people get higher salaries, are more likely to get call-backs after social or professional interactions, and, are more likely to be taken seriously. There are no laws against this type of discrimination. Regardless of whether discrimination is overt or covert however, it is not an automatic, implicit process that we are not aware of; in fact, this is the only component of inter-group relationships that we are aware of, and have conscious control over.
Final thoughts: the inter-group conflict process starts in the mind with the formation of stereotypes. These stereotypes then affect group-wide thinking by influencing the way we feel about other people (whether we like them or not). These thoughts, attitudes and feelings then have a tremendous impact in making our behaviors unfairly discriminating, creating a society that is out of balance and inequitable across the board. The entire cycle starts internally within humans and manifests itself externally in our communities.
To break the cycle of discrimination, we need to go to the source and break the process of stereotypes. This is because whether positive or negative, stereotypes are harmful to societal balance. Yes, most of us do fit some stereotypes about whatever groups we belong to, but, we also have a myriad of characteristics which defy the very stereotypes that are applied to us. No living creature is ever a true and complete amalgamation of its stereotypical characteristics.
While stereotypes make information processing an easier task, they also make actual and relevant information about a situation less exact, so that any judgments and decisions based on this information are more likely to be incorrect. By focusing on stereotypical information, our brains tend to ignore other non-stereotypical information that may be of great significance to the moment. Yet, stereotypes and prejudice are both implicit processes that happen outside of our realm of awareness.
So, how do we reduce them? One incredibly effective way to cut stereotypes in our minds is by reducing discriminating behaviors in society and by increasing inclusive initiatives that are based on behavior. The logic behind this might seem counter-intuitive, because one might say that we would have to change people’s minds before we may change their behaviors, however, the logic is sound. While usually, psychological attitudes dictate behavior manifestation, it is also possible to create a system-wide change by starting on the behavioral level.
Research has given us ample evidence (the most compelling of which, is the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment) that changes in behavior will cause internal changes in attitudes. While the operational procedures of Stanford Prison Experiment may be unethical, many other pieces of research since then have provided overwhelming evidence that it is possible to change people’s attitudes by changing their behavior in ethical ways. When we properly enforce inclusive behaviors and policies in people and groups, over time, these behaviors will change people’s internal attitudes to become more inclusive.