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Is it possible (or useful) to live without stereotypes and prejudices?

People who are aware of, and ashamed of, their prejudices are well on the road to eliminating them. Gordon Allport

Have you announced to everybody at home today, right after you woke up, that you need coffee or otherwise you would not be able to go through the day? If yes, beware you may be a victim of a stereotype… or addiction to coffee.

Stereotypes surround us and are in our heads almost every minute of our lives. Is it bad? Not really. Thanks to them we make decisions faster, we recognize things or people more easily and we are able to tell if something is good or bad for us. When you see a thing consisting of a weighted "head" made of steel fixed to a long handle, you are able to say it’s a hammer, whatever it looks like. When you are walking home alone through a park at night and you see a group of people coming from the opposite direction, you are usually trying to look for other people around you to help you, just in case. But imagine other situations: you sprained your ankle and needed to go to the emergency room at the hospital. Unfortunately, you need to wait for the doctor. The waiting room is full of people and the only free seat available is by a man with darker carnation and you decided not to sit by him as he might be Roma. Well, this is what we call microaggression or “invisible racism”, which is based on stereotypes.

What is what?

Stereotypes are specific cognitive representations of different groups of people. They are usually very durable and not prone to change. These cognitive representations are extremely generalized and reductive, simplifying the reality. All this is connected with strong evaluative feelings (this is good, that is bad).

Stereotypes may evolve over time and become prejudices - negative attitudes towards some groups of people based on unchecked, generalised and residual information. There are many types of prejudices, such as:

  • Aversive – on the emotional level they are connected with such feelings as: fear, anxiety, loathing or sense of danger. On the behavioural level, they usually lead to avoidance of some people or groups of people.

  • Based on the idea of domination – emotionally they are tied with the sense of superiority that usually leads to aggression.

  • Internally contradictory – connected with ambivalent emotions: we can at the same time feel aversion and admiration. However, all in all, we consider ourselves as better people in such situations. On behavioural level this type of prejudice leads to keeping distance to people we do not like.

  • Borderline prejudices – this category includes all behaviours that are not easy to classify, for example: they might be based on pre-judgments (e.g. we buy pink clothes for girls and blue for boys) or opinions such as: if people hate them it means they deserve it, etc.

There are many reasons why we have stereotypes and prejudices. In a macroscale, they are the result of cultural, historical, social or economic factors. Psychologically, they come from the process of categorisation (grouping similar objects, labelling), they might be the result of frustration of conformism or, in some cases, they are the expressions of certain types of personality traits.

Prejudiced personality?

Nobody is born racist – how many times have you heard this? I strongly believe it is true: racism is learnt in the process of socialisations and even if social science offers some explanations about different personality traits, we need to remember that personality is also developed throughout life and there are many factors influencing this development: biological, cultural, social or family factors – so, all in all, it is a mix of nature and culture.

So, what does social science say about racism and personality? I would like to mention here two theories that may help us understand why some people are more prejudiced than others.

The theory of an authoritarian personality, developed by Theodor Adorno, was an influential though mid-twentieth-century theory to explain the mass appeal of fascism and ethnocentrism. A person with authoritarian personality shows a very strong respect towards power and holds a very hierarchical vision of the world, which usually goes hand in hand with upholding conservative values. Such a person, according to Adorno, is deprived of auto-reflection and does not tolerate weakness. A person with authoritarian personality believes aggression toward those who do not subscribe to conventional thinking, or who are different is justified. They also hold beliefs in simple answers and polemics – e.g. the media controls us all or the source of all our problems is the loss of morals these days, etc. Adorno and his research colleagues developed so called F-scale (F for Fascist), which purported to measure fascist tendencies by evaluating responses to a series of weighted questions.

Another theory, which may look very similar to Adorno’s, was developed by Milton Rokeach, an American social psychologist who in tried to explain the reason for existing racial prejudices among Americans. He came up with the concept of dogmatic personality. People with this type of personality hold insulated groups of views and opinions, which are usually internally contradictory, but such people do not recognise this fact. They usually have a tendency to see their views as totally different from the views of the other people rarely seeing any similarities. They show respect toward “own people” and anything that is foreign constitutes the source of threat. Dogmatic personality, contrary to authoritarian one, does not have any ideological layer.

Both theories were criticised, but it is nothing new in the world of science.

Recently, a new study has been developed that shows that racism can be innate. Researchers led by psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Elizabeth Phelps of New York University did functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans showing that interactions between people from different racial groups trigger reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves. This does not, however, mean that we are born racist and we can’t do anything about it. The results of this research only add one element to existing explanations about stereotypes and prejudices we have, and the cultural influence on our biological processes can never be teased out.

Why stereotypes and prejudices can be dangerous?

Stereotypes do not only simplify the reality but when they lead to prejudices, they can result in actions that are harmful or deadly for other people. Gordon Allport, an American psychologist, based on his research, developed a scale - a measure of the manifestation of prejudice in a society. The scale contains 5 stages of prejudice, ranked by the increasing harm they produce. The scale is often presented in a form of pyramid, such as presented below:

According to Allport, stereotypes and prejudices lead first to negative feeling that are expressed in a form of derogatory or hate speech. Antilocution (speaking against) is often believed to be harmless, but it can harm the self-esteem of the people of the targeted group, and it can clear the way for more harmful forms of prejudice. The line between violent words and violent acts is often very thin. Then it comes avoidance, isolation of people we do not like or hate, which ends up in exclusion. Discrimination is the third step, and it is intended to harm a group by preventing it from achieving goals, getting education or jobs, etc. Discrimination, if not stopped, may lead to physical attacks, often called hate crimes that may end up in extermination (ethnic cleansing or genocide).

If you actively use social networks and you encounter hate speech, you can easily notice that the starting point is often very subtle (Why are these refugees coming to Europe? They should stay where they are), but the discussion it triggers often leads to such expressions: I do not want to have them around me (avoidance), they should not get any social support (discrimination), if I see a person like this I will punch him in his face (physical attack(, we should kill them all (extermination). I used nice words, however, the discussions on social media are far more violent.

Then, it is good to realise that small acts of aggression, so called microaggressions, are usually the starting point.

Can I do something about my stereotypes and prejudices?

Of course, you can. The good thing to start is to stop pretending we do not have them. We all hold stereotypes and prejudices and, whether we like it or not, they impact our own lives and lives of the other people. Therefore, it is good to be aware of them and make other people realise they do have them. There is nothing wrong about it.

I was recently on the party and during one group conversation people started to express their disgust with other people who smoke cigarettes. Suddenly, one of person involved in the conversation said: “I hate when people smoke, and it doesn’t look nice. It is especially disgusting when women smoke”. Well, she expressed her opinion… a biased opinion. Smoking is not about gender, it is about… smoking.

So next time, you hear something like that you can use a 3-step strategy: STOP (I do not understand why you said it, I do not want you to make smoking gender-specific), ASK (what are you saying this? What makes you think so?), EDUCATE (smoking is not about gender, this is a biased opinion, it is called sexism). This strategy works usually in other cases, be it racist, homophobic, or xenophobic expressions.

So, tomorrow morning, when you say to the others at home that you need coffee to survive the day, ask yourself why you need it… Maybe because you simply like it.


Theodor W. Adorno, Studies in the Authoritarian Personality, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1975

Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, Basic Books; Unabridged edition (January 22, 1979)

Jennifer T Kubota, Mahzarin R Banaji & Elizabeth A Phelps, The neuroscience of race, Nature Neuroscience volume 15, pages 940–948 (2012)

Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind. Investigation into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems, Basic Boos, New York, 1960